How Burnout Can Cause Fluid Retention

Oct 27, 2021

Dr. Ashley Margeson, ND

Dr. Ashley Margeson, ND


Did you know that gaining weight around your belly could be a classic sign of burnout? And that chronic stress can directly block your ability to lose any weight at all?


Running away from a bear constantly doesn’t make it easy for our bodies to maintain a consistent weight. Why? When our body gets stuck in “high alert” mode and stress hormones are released over and over due to constant daily pressures, they can cause an overproduction of adrenaline and cortisol.


It’s one of the most common hormonal problems I see in my office.


Yet, many women don’t recognize the warning signs of burnout until it’s far too late. Addressing stress responses is one of the most overlooked natural ways to balance hormones, achieve stable weight, a healthy immune system,  good sleep, and stable moods.



So why am I retaining fluid? 


Blame it on high and low cortisol and adrenaline output. The impacts of high cortisol can easily be seen in people who suffer Cushing’s disease, a condition that causes chronic excess cortisol. Cushing’s sufferers experience round puffy faces, high blood pressure and weight gain, particularly around the belly and chest. Now, you probably don’t have Cushing’s disease, but similar side effects can occur if you are exposed to sustained stress. Suddenly you pack on more pounds even though you’re not eating more food. And exercise doesn’t shift it either.


Cortisol is also a catabolic hormone. This means that when it’s released during stress it breaks down protein to use for energy. The end result?  Rapid and ongoing muscle wastage even though you are working out every day. Not to mention that when you finally find the energy to exercise you’re releasing even more cortisol – leading to, you guessed it, more muscle breakdown. Not good!


Finally, cortisol’s job is to ensure you have enough energy to get through an emergency. And when stress triggers you to release cortisol it remains in your system for around nine hours (and sometimes even longer!). Long-lasting cortisol can influence weight gain and fluid retention through a few very specific areas.


It Triggers Gluconeogenesis


Cortisol wants high levels of blood glucose and other fuel sources in your bloodstream. To produce that quick energy it triggers your liver and muscles to release and break down stored protein and fat as well as glycogen, so you have readily available blood glucose. But if the cause of your stress is a huge house repair  bill or fight with your boss, you can’t burn up that blood glucose through fighting someone or sprinting away. So you end up with an excess of sugars in your bloodstream, which usually get stored as fat.


We Increase Our Stores


Cortisol tells your brain you’re under threat. If that threat appears day after day, it tells your body to lay down fat cells in your tummy and start storing fat there in case food becomes scarce. Those fat cells in your belly also contain more cortisol receptors.


These fat cells then release cortisol as well, which just potentiates that fluid retention. Ugh. A 2015 study showed that there appears to be a signalling pathway where body fat sends messages directly to your brain and if there is too much fat stored, this may interfere with your body’s ability to turn the stress response off. No wonder you can’t lose weight when you’re stressed out.


The thing I start getting my patients to do when we notice that there is fluid retention happening? Slow down the exercise and start supporting your stress axis.



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