Your body cannot distinguish between different stressors (i.e. stress at work, calorie restriction, lack of sleep, stress in a relationship, money, etc.) and causes the exact same response for every form of stress. Both, decreasing calories below your daily needs and working out more than needed, are stressors to your body and stimulate your body’s “fight or flight response” and the release of “stress hormones”.
Cortisol, your main “stress hormone” is being secreted as a natural response to stress. This hormone causes the following changes in your body when it is chronically elevated:
Increased glycogen synthesis: Even though you are not eating much, your liver starts to make more glycogen ( the storage form of glucose) on its own.
Increased blood sugar: Your liver makes new glucose (sugar) from amino acids in a process called gluconeogenesis, to raise blood sugar and prevent your blood sugar from dropping too low. This happens even if you are not consuming any carbohydrates.
Protein breakdown: Amino acids can be used for the production of new glucose, and your body uses the amino acids from your muscle tissue to make this happen. This is a catabolic process, where your muscles are essentially being “broken down”.
Peripheral insulin resistance: Your cells do not take up the sugar molecules anymore as another mechanism to keep the sugar molecules in the blood so your blood sugar levels are maintained and don’t below physiologic levels. When the cells become insulin resistance it is not only glucose that can’t get in but also important nutrients and electrolytes, that are needed for various metabolic functions. A lack of fuel for the cells leads to fatigue, weakness, and decreased energy production.
Another mechanism that occurs in response to prolonged calorie restriction and excess exercise is that besides cortisol, your adrenals also secrete the catecholamines adrenaline and noradrenaline. These two hormones cause a reduction in blood circulation and decreased GI motility (peristalsis). Symptoms associated with this mechanism are gut issues (constipation and/or diarrhea, gas, bloating), cold hands and feet, and brain fog (because not enough blood reaches the brain).
In tightly regulated mechanisms of the kidneys and liver, low blood pressure and low electrolytes lead to sodium and water retention, increased thirst, and increased blood pressure.
To summarise what is causing weight gain when you restrict calories for too long and when you do exercise more than your body can recover from are:
- increased water and sodium retention — most of the weight gain you experience is water weight
- insulin resistance — no nutrients to the cells means no metabolic efficiency
- decreased circulation — no oxygen and nutrients reaching the cells leading to slowed metabolic functions and energy production
- decreased gut motility — build up of toxins because they are not being eliminated properly. Toxins need to be stored in fat tissue to protect the body, hence your body produces more fat tissue, which then produces more toxins (vicious cycle).
When it comes to weight loss, most of us tend to try it the hard way. Based on the above information, which presents only one of many other mechanisms, I hope it becomes clear that this drastic approach usually does not work but actually backfires.
Sometimes, calorie restriction or adhering to a low-carb diet, like the ketogenic diet, can be very very effective and you’ll see rapid desired outcomes. However, due to the physiologic reasons mentioned above, these effects won’t last long and calories need to be increased again at some point. I usually don’t recommend any (restrictive) diet for longer than 4 weeks due to the negative effects of depriving the body of calories or certain foods for too long.
If you want to achieve a certain weight, or think you need to change your diet, it is always best to work with a practitioner who can assess you and help you find the safest and most effective approach for you. The body always sacrifices long-term health for short-term survival. You may think that a certain dietary approach is effective because you see quick results, but it will cause metabolic harm in the long run.
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