Work Related Health Problems – How Your Job Can Make You Fat and Depressed, and What to Do About It

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD


Work related health problems can destroy your lifeAre you starting to feel generally unwell since you started this new, more demanding job? It’s not just the snacking-while-sitting-at-your-desk that is causing work related health problems; it’s the small (and sometimes large) stresses at the office, day in and day out.

Think about it: you spend at least eight hours of your day at your job, plus an hour or two commuting. And if you’re like many people climbing up the career ladder, you probably take your work home with you as well. Emails on your smartphone in bed, ruminating about last week’s meeting, or worrying about next week’s deadline adds to that stress.

That stress, plus the fact that it’s hard to eat healthy while at work, being sedentary in front of a computer all day long, and then being too tired by the time you get home to cook a healthy meal or hit the gym, is a recipe for work related health problems.

Many studies have shown that people tend to gain weight when under work stress. People who are under the most pressure are more likely to be at either extreme: underweight or obese. You probably already know your own tendency – whether you eat more or lose your appetite when under a lot of stress.

But what is it about stress that creates so many work related health problems? In this article, we’ll break it down point by point and give you ideas on how to handle each one so that you can keep the pounds off and maintain good health while getting your work done.

Cortisol at Work

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response is your body’s global response to stress. It is composed of six circuits: the hormone, the metabolism, the cardionomic, the neuroaffect, the inflammation, and the detoxification response. These circuits are made up of many organs and systems working together to combat stress.

This is healthy and necessary, and your body is built to handle stress. Especially survival threats. Our ancestors had to face critical, sometimes life-threatening situations, and their bodies had to react very quickly to ensure their safety. The “fight or flight” response is what makes hormones like adrenaline surge through your body to give you more strength and speed to deal with challenges.Cortisol and Work related health problems

Cortisol, the body’s main anti-stress hormone, is another hormone that spikes when you’re facing a stressful situation. It is part of the NEM’s hormone response, and it works through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

When cortisol is needed, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to stimulate the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol – it’s like a hormone cascade. Once the job is done, extra cortisol acts as a signal to the control centers in the brain to stop their stimulatory effects.

One of the jobs of cortisol is to release energy into the body to help the “fight or flight” response. You need more energy to fight or run away from harm. But the problem is that nowadays, what our bodies consider survival threats are actually stressors that we face almost on a daily basis, including those at work.

There are two criteria that modern-day stressors need to meet to make your body react the same way as it would if you were facing real danger. First, it has to feel like the stressor is not under your control, and second, it puts your social status at risk.

One theory that explains this second criterion is that, as a social species, our ancestors’ survival depended on the tribe or group they were part of. In those early times, being exiled usually meant death. So, evolutionarily, our bodies developed to interpret social threats as survival threats. This means that, in modern times, if you feel like your position or good standing at work is under any kind of threat, your stress hormones will spike.

Imagine that your boss being critical, or your colleague is getting too competitive with you, or a big review is coming up, all could lead your body to biochemically behave like it’s facing a predator.

Work Related Health Problems – Weight Gain

Work related health problems and weight gainSo now let’s look at how these stress hormones actually affect the body, particularly why they tend to make people gain weight.

First of all, if you were really facing a predator, the glucose that gets released into your blood and muscles to give you energy to run or fight would be used up to do just that. But, while you’re at work, you’re sitting there with all that extra glucose accumulating, and eventually it turns into fat.

Another issue is that if you’re constantly facing these cortisol-spiking stresses, your adrenal glands will begin to dysregulate. At first, they will work overtime to produce enough cortisol to meet the ongoing demand. Imagine it like your own firefighter constantly on call, putting out fires on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. After a while, this firefighter will be exhausted and will not be able to get the job done. The same is true for your adrenals. Once they are exhausted, they can’t do their job and their cortisol output will drop.

This whole process is part of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), which progresses from mild to advanced. Symptoms of AFS include fatigue, easily gaining weight, difficulty losing weight, difficulty falling asleep, waking in the middle of the night, low energy upon waking, low libido, low immunity, food cravings, food and drug sensitivities, anxiety, mild depression, PMS, infertility, and more.

Without balanced cortisol levels, the rest of the NEM will also dysregulate. The metabolism response, composed of the thyroid, pancreas, and liver, will be affected early, as it is intimately connected to the hormone response.

With a slowed thyroid, metabolism, in general, will suffer. Insulin resistance can also develop, and the liver may not be able to rid the body of the metabolite by-products created by imbalanced hormonal cycles. All of these imbalances can also lead to weight problems.

A metabolism response that is not working well can create dyslipidemia, sugar cravings, and central obesity. These are typically seen in the first and second stages of AFS. In more advanced stages, more weight gain, hypoglycemia and even type 2 diabetes can result. In very late stages, however, many lose weight and muscle mass, at the cost of being bed-bound.

Finally, another way that cortisol adds to your weight is that it can make you want to eat fattening foods. As you have probably experienced, when you’re under a lot of stress, you tend to crave foods full of fat and sugar. That’s because these foods can give you the biggest short-term energy boost needed for a “fight or flight” response.

And since you’re consistently in that “fight or flight” response, your brain has become accustomed to seeing these kinds of foods as allies in that struggle for survival. Not only that, but your brain will actually make these foods taste better during these times, making the temptation and reward even more difficult for you to resist.

The Danger of Central Obesity

Obesity and Work related health problemsIf the NEM’s metabolism response is dysregulated, you’re more at risk of developing central obesity, which is when fat is concentrated around the belly and waistline. Recent studies are showing that central obesity is actually more harmful than fat that is more evenly distributed around the body. It increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, depression, cancer, diabetes, and osteoarthritis.

That’s because, first of all, central obesity is mainly made up of visceral fat, or fat that is found between the organs, rather than subcutaneous fat, which is located right under the skin. The fat cells involved in visceral fat accumulation release their fatty acids into portal circulation, which then build up inside the liver, pancreas, and heart. When these organs are affected, problems can appear there too.

That’s why some of the more common work related health problems include unstable blood sugar levels, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and issues with insulin. Many also have an increase in inflammatory molecules, like cytokines. This means that central obesity creates inflammation in the body, and inflammation has been found to be the root cause of most chronic diseases.

The reason that stress and work related health problems lead to central obesity is that the central abdomen contains a higher concentration of cortisol receptors than the periphery of the body. These receptors keep getting the signal from the increased cortisol, which is caused by the increased stress, to store more fat. This can even make the fat around the body redistribute to the belly.

In addition, fat is needed to produce more cortisol. Fat is where cholesterol, the raw material that makes cortisol, is stored. Plus, the entire process of converting cholesterol into the subsequent hormones that become cortisol needs energy, and to make the process less energy consuming, the cholesterol-containing fat cells need to be close to the adrenal glands.

These delicate hormonal balances are easily disrupted by chronic stress, and they are the main issues you’re facing when dealing with work related health problems. The stress of your difficult boss is actually affecting you on a physiological level, not just an emotional one. This is why it’s really important to get on top of this situation as early as possible.

How to Handle Work Related Health Problems

The first thing you need to avoid is the dangerous stress-junk-food cycle.

But, you can’t stop there. Research has shown that if you are stressed, you’re still at risk for many of the work related health problems mentioned even if you are eating a healthy diet. That’s because your body metabolizes food, healthy or not, differently when you’re stressed. Some studies have shown people under stress having an inflammation response to healthy fats similar to those who ate unhealthy fat.

So, you need to take a holistic approach. Check for signs of AFS, and do what’s necessary to strengthen your adrenals and balance your NEM stress response. This includes:

  • Allow yourself to rest as much as you need. If this means having to take time off work or finding ways to lighten your schedule, then you need to prioritize this.
  • Make sure you are getting good quality sleep. Don’t use electronic devices at least two hours before bed. Keep your room cool and dark. Eat a light snack before bed to keep your blood sugar stable.
  • Find ways to manage your stress. Meditation, therapy, nature walks, support groups, and breathing exercises can all be very useful. Solutions to Work related health problems
  • If there are situations and people that really stress you out and it is possible to either avoid or lessen exposure, do so.
  • Take up an adrenal fatigue diet, which helps to strengthen your adrenals, is anti-inflammatory, and helps with weight loss.
  • Make sure you keep healthy snacks available at work and at home so that in the case of a particularly stressful day, you don’t reach for the junk.
  • Begin incorporating light exercise into your week. If you’re in advanced stages of AFS, start with adrenal breathing exercises and slowly work up to adrenal yoga.
  • You can always talk to your HR manager. Many companies have processes and options in place for burnouts and stress.

It is highly recommended that you seek the help of an experienced professional if your condition is advanced. Individualizing your health program to fit your unique situation and needs can save a lot of time and effort, as well as trial-and-error pitfalls. This is especially the case with supplements and any drastic lifestyle changes.

The good news is that work related health problems are being recognized in the health and medical fields, and options are available. You don’t have to suffer or put yourself at risk just to maintain your job, and you don’t have to lose your job just because you prioritize your health. You can have both.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Stress and cortisol have a big role to play in work related health problems. Dealing with a difficult boss or a huge workload can create hormonal imbalances that aggravate weight, cravings, and energy levels. They can even lead to chronic conditions.


Work related health problems