Written by: Kevin Cann

Stress and obesity have a strong link in our society.  In order to combat the obesity epidemic effectively we need to recognize the connection and handle the underlying stressors.  A group of hormones that are released when we are stressed are called glucocorticoids.  These glucocorticoids remain in the blood for a significant time after the stressor is removed.  Put a person under chronic stress and they will have constantly high amounts of glucocorticoids in their blood.

The glucocorticoids initiate the release of corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) which is a key player in our stress response.  They also increase our cravings for sugary foods and they also act directly on increasing abdominal fat storage (Dallman, 2003).  Dallman in her study concluded that “We believe people eat comfort food in an attempt to reduce the activity in the chronic-stress response network with its attendant anxiety.”  This is due to the decreased CRF, catecholamines, and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal activity found in depressed people that overeat (Dallman, 2003).  To understand these links more let us take a step back and look at what is going on in our bodies.

There are two types of neurotransmitters; inhibitory and excitatory.  The inhibitors are serotonin and GABA.  These neurotransmitters are the ones that make us feel good and also are responsible for our self-esteem and sleep.  These get depleted and we suffer from depression, insomnia, and even anger.  The excitatory neurotransmitters are glutamate, catecholamines, PEA, and dopamine.  These are responsible for making us alert, our thinking, focus, memory, ambition, and stress.  To look at a few of these, if we have low dopamine we will generally be fatigued, have trouble with numbers, low libido, and decreased short term memory.  Low norepinephrine causes depression, decreased ambition, and dependence on stimulants such as caffeine.  Too much norepinephrine and we get panic and insomnia.

We need these neurotransmitters in the right balance to feel well and be healthy.  Chronic neurotransmitter release leads to depletion over time.  This is why medications work in the beginning, but then need to be adjusted.  Our receptor sites for neurotransmitters work just like our receptors for insulin.  Chronic up regulation of these neurotransmitters cause the receptor sites to desensitize to them to protect themselves from too much.  So what causes desensitization and depletion of neurotransmitters?  Diet for one.

High glycemic carbohydrates cause spikes in dopamine and serotonin as well as opioids and cannabinoids (see my other articles on carb addiction and food addiction).  Too little protein in the diet can also cause depletion due to some of the neurotransmitters being made up of amino acids.  A 3oz serving of protein can actually raise epinephrine levels in 30 minutes.  Other causes are heavy metal toxicity, low b-complex status, low omega 3 status, low estrogen, and stimulant use.  Genetics also play a critical role in how much of the neurotransmitters we produce and how sensitive we are to them.  Obesity as well as mental illness have strong genetic links.

Another major factor that depletes neurotransmitters is stress.  Stress raises free radicals, insulin, and blood pressure which all damage neurons.  Our body has a checks and balances system to make sure we do not go too far in one direction.  When we are stressed and our catecholamines rise we will release serotonin and GABA to counteract it.  If we are constantly under stress and releasing serotonin and GABA we will desensitize to them and they will become depleted.  This leaves the catecholamines to run rampant.  Excess amounts of catecholamines in our system lead to depression, anxiety, and insomnia.  Poor sleep, illness, and excessive heat will also deplete serotonin as does cortisol.  Cortisol actually damages serotonin receptor sites.

As was mentioned earlier we need all these neurotransmitters in balance to function properly.  This is a requirement of our HPA-axis.  Our HPA-axis controls our metabolism.  Therefore, if the neurotransmitters are not in balance our metabolism gets thrown out of whack.  One of the negative side effects of this is an up regulation in fat storage.  This is what Dallman’s study showed as well.  Sustained imbalances in neurotransmitters leads to increased risk for obesity.

The take home from this is that we need to eat right, manage our stress, and get the right amount of exercise in order to achieve our health goals.  A low carb paleo diet can help combat blood sugar imbalances, give us enough amino acids to make neurotransmitters, and correct nutrient deficiencies.  Meditation has been shown to lower catecholamines and exercise can actually double serotonin and brain repair chemicals. Sunlight also increases serotonin.  Give some stress management some serious thought, especially if your goals seem to be out of reach.


Dallman, Mary (2003).  Chronic Stress and Obesity.  www.pnas.org.  Retrieved on April 17, 2012.

Other information was derived from a 2004 NANP seminar with Dr. Ramona Richard titled Brain Stress: Neurotransmitter Nutrient Support.


Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.com.