Relax for Weight Loss

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Here’s a good overview article about the links between STRESS and FAT (especially belly fat). I did this interview way back in 2008 for Women’s Health Magazine and you can read the full article below (with bolded highlights) or the original at


I think it’s cool that this article from 2008 popped up in a recent Google Alert because the stress/fat relationship is seeing a bit of a resurgence within the scientific community (lots or new studies published in the last couple of years linking stress/cortisol with belly fat).


I’ve been writing about the links between stress, cortisol, testosterone, sleep, belly fat, depression, and fatigue for more than a decade. My first book on the topic, The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health, came out in 2002 – yikes! – and I’ve been traveling around the country since then to educate audiences about the need for biochemical balance in their bodies (cortisol, glucose, antioxidants, inflammation, neurotransmitters, etc).


You can read most of my books online (for free – see links below) or buy them at Amazon or anywhere else you buy books.


About the Author: Shawn Talbott holds a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry (Rutgers) and a MS in Exercise Science (UMass). He trains for iron-distance triathlons and ultra-marathons in Utah – and is always sure to keep himself in biochemical balance and high vigor.


Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACN, FACSM, FAIS

Nutritional Biochemist and Author


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My books related to stress, cortisol, vigor, and Feeling Your Best:

?    Vigor Diet – The New Science of Feeling Your Best

?    The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

?    Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic. FREE versions at

?    The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House) – FREE text at

?    The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House) – FREE text at

?    Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House) – FREE text at

?    Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books) –

?    The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)

?    The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkens)

?    A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)




Want to Lose Fat? Chill Out

Feeling stressed can trigger more than migraine headaches or a meltdown. You could become obese! Learn how to chill out and keep your body fat in check




You can’t take much more. It’s quarter to three on a very bad day that’s already included ripped tights, a confrontation with your boss, and a guilt trip from your mother. You need a pick-me-up, a way to make it through the rest of the day without exploding. You need a double-hot-fudge sundae. Or a giant plateful of fries. Or, OK, even the month-old bag of probably-stale pretzels that’s buried at the bottom of your desk drawer.


If you’ve ever felt this way, then you sure don’t need us to tell you that stress can make you fat. And you’re not alone: In a survey of more than 1,800 people last year, the American Psychological Association reports, 43 percent of respondents admitted to overeating or to eating unhealthy foods in response to stress during the previous month. And women were more apt to do it than men.


Forget Häagen-Dazs therapy. Research has uncovered new information about the link between stress and snacking that can help you break the cycle— no therapist required. And once you find out how to fight the biological odds stacked against you, not only will you be more relaxed, but the waistband on your jeans will be too.


Why Cavewomen Didn’t Wear Spanx: Stress, Fat, and Darwin

The word stress gets tossed around more than the lettuce at Saladworks. But in scientific terms, that headache-inducing, nerve-jangling feeling is your body’s way of trying to maintain balance in the midst of threatening and fast-changing situations. Your body achieves that balance by releasing hormones. So whether you’ve lost your wallet or missed a period, your body deals in the only way it knows how: by signaling the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (the docs call it epinephrine).


You’re probably familiar with adrenaline’s role as the fight-or-flight hormone; it gives you instant energy so you can get out of harm’s way. In prehistoric times, we needed that boost to fight or outrun predators; today, it’s still useful when you have to physically respond to a threatening situation.


The logic behind our need to feed under duress, however, is less obvious. After all, doesn’t stuffing down cupcakes only make you lethargic? And isn’t that the opposite of what you’d think should happen when adrenaline courses through your system? For the answer, you need to get familiar with cortisol. This other stress hormone is released by your adrenal glands at the same time as adrenaline, but you usually don’t feel its effect for an hour or so. When you do, you know it—cortisol’s sole function is to make you ravenous.


“Cortisol is one of the most potent appetite signals we have,” says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Metabolic Method. Some research suggests that it may interfere with the signals that control appetite (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin). Stress and cortisol might also cause our brain to find more pleasure in sweets. And because cortisol can mix up your hunger signals and suppress your brain’s normal reward system, feeling tense may make you crave a decadent dessert even after a big meal.


This was a good thing back when we just burned through a ton of calories fleeing a sabretooth and had to refuel. But now that stress is more about busy schedules and unbalanced checkbooks than about outrunning ferocious beasts, our biggest threat is having our butts grow to behemoth proportions.


While it might seem as if stress weakens your willpower, the real culprit is cortisol. The reason you want a brownie instead of raw veggies when you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic is that cortisol demands the most readily available sources of energy: high-fat, simple-carb foods that your body can use quickly. That’s why big bowls of pasta, chocolate bars, and potato chips have gained comfort-food status—they’re exactly what your body craves in times of trouble.


We’re not the only animals who respond to stress this way. Studies have shown that even mice gravitate toward fatty foods when they’re ticked off. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania offered lab mice their regular food and, for a one-hour window each day, as many high-fat food pellets as they could eat. When the mice were stressed (since rodents, as far as we know, don’t sweat gridlock, researchers riled them up by exposing them to the odor of a predator, among other things), they scarfed as many of the high-fat pellets as they could in that hour, and ate even more day after day. Result: a lot of fat, angry little critters.


Why Self-Deprivation Is Dumb

The Penn mouse study also suggests that women may be more sensitive to this particular effect of stress; there may be a biological reason your guy would choose to zone out on the couch rather than raid the cupboards after a rough day. Researchers found that when a single high-fat food pellet was buried in the creatures’ bedding, the stressed-out Minnies were much more motivated than the Mickeys to dig up the yummy nugget—uncovering it in an average of 60 seconds, while males took more than twice as long. (In the interest of safety, please do not attempt to recreate this test at home.)


Researchers at Montclair State University found that men’s and women’s snacking habits also differ. A group of subjects were given puzzles, some of which were impossible to solve, then they were invited to snack on bowls of peanuts, grapes, potato chips, and M&M’s. The women tended to eat more of a healthy snack when they were able to solve the puzzles but dipped into the chocolate more often when they couldn’t. Men showed the opposite response, eating significantly more unhealthy snacks when they mastered the puzzles. Lead study author Debra A. Zellner, Ph.D., attributes the difference to men’s and women’s attitudes about “taboo” foods. Men tend to eat junk food as a reward—in this case, for having solved the puzzles. On the other hand, when female subjects (many of whom were on diets) got frustrated, they reached for taboo snacks to make themselves feel better.


That’s a bad idea in more ways than one. “The more you try to restrict your calories, the more likely you are to gain weight,” says neuroscientist Cliff Roberts, Ph.D., a senior lecturer with London Southbank University who studied 71 healthy female students who were enrolled in a nurse practitioner program. In the 12 weeks from the beginning of the term to finals, 40 of the women gained an average of five and a half pounds. All were habitual dieters who had exhibited the highest dietary restraint at the onset of the term, and all had significantly high cortisol levels. Roberts believes that the added stress of trying to maintain their weight while keeping up with their schoolwork created a vicious cycle: Stress drove them to eat; then eating (and the weight gain that followed) stressed them out even more and they resorted to filling themselves up with comfort food.


Chronically elevated cortisol levels from any kind of prolonged stress can affect weight even more over the long haul. For one thing, cortisol encourages the body to store fat–specifically, in the abdominal region—rather than burn it. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that resources are readily available for fuel when the body needs to perform life-preserving exertion or, for that matter, withstand famine. This all makes even more sense when you consider that abdominal fat has both a greater blood supply (so cortisol travels there quickly) and more receptors for cortisol. The hormone also slows the production of testosterone, which is essential for muscle building. Chronically low testosterone promotes loss of muscle mass, which ultimately can slow your metabolism.


Why You Should Drive Yourself to Distraction

Unless you join a monastery, you can’t avoid stress or stop your body’s automatic reaction to it. But don’t start pumping out cortisol just yet. There’s still plenty you can do. Try these easy tension-­relieving strategies:


Give in The Montclair puzzle studies indicated that women tend to eat more unhealthy foods only when they are both battling stress and restricting calories in order to lose weight. That clearly indicates, Zellner says, that women should stop depriving themselves. “Instead of viewing certain foods as ‘off limits,’ they should view them as things they can have occasionally,” she says. Try budgeting one or two small treats into your day instead of avoiding them entirely—that way, you won’t risk going overboard when your willpower finally snaps.


Sleep Yes, this might sound like the last thing you’re capable of when you’re strung out, but here’s a bit of news that will encourage you to get some z’s: “A person who gets less than six hours of sleep can have up to 50 percent more cortisol in the evening than someone who gets eight hours,” Talbott says. Sleep deprivation also increases the amount of ghrelin (the hormone that triggers appetite) and decreases leptin (an appetite suppressor). You may not even need as much snooze time as you think: A study in the journal Sleep showed that seven or eight hours a night is sufficient and that anything less or more could lead to weight gain.


Wait Unless you’re a member of a bomb squad or Naomi Campbell’s entourage, you probably don’t live in a state of constant unrelenting stress. If you only face isolated outbreaks of tension, like traffic jams and dentist appointments, chances are good that you can beat cortisol’s damaging effects. Like all hormones, it doesn’t linger in your blood stream forever, so if you can avoid giving in to the urge to stuff yourself silly for the two to three hours it takes cortisol to leave your system, you’ll be home free. “Distraction can be a really great strategy,” says psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., author of The Food and Feelings Workbook.”Flipping through a magazine or doing a hobby you enjoy, like knitting, can succeed even where yoga might fail for someone who isn’t a fan.


Get therapy Don’t wait for vacation to book your next massage—studies have linked the occasional back rub to lower cortisol. In one such study, a 15-minute chair massage decreased hospital workers’ cortisol levels by 24 percent. In addition to reporting less job stress, anxiety, and depression after their rubdowns, the workers solved math problems faster and more accurately. Hit the spa at lunch after a crazy morning, and you’ll be not only more relaxed but also more productive. Can’t break away? Keep a handheld gadget, like the HoMedics Quad Extreme rechargeable handheld massager, plugged in at your desk and knead as needed.


Move It’s not just yoga—at least 30 minutes a day of any kind of physical activity can help you conquer the negative effects of cortisol. “Being active is a great way to reduce cortisol levels,” Talbott says. “In our studies, we see cortisol falling by 15 to 20 percent from the start to the end of a six- to 12-week diet, exercise, and stress-reduction program. He also suggests changing your approach to working out: Instead of “steady state” cardio (a consistent pace that elevates your heart rate to the 60-to-75 percent of maximum range but doesn’t overly challenge), try interval training, which pushes you to your max in several short bursts. “Interval training can change hormone balances for the better faster than steady-state exercise,” Talbott says. That includes boosting your testosterone, which helps build muscle and restore metabolism. Try it for your next cardio session: Warm up for five minutes, then work your way up by doing a one-minute sprint followed by one minute at an easy pace, then two and two, three and three, and so on.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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