There is a lot of stress around being fat, particularly gaining a few kilos after the festive season. Many people worry about being overweight and the negative stigma and health problems it can lead to. But can stress actually cause you to put on weight in the first place? The bad news is that it can. Studies show there is a link between high cortisol (stress hormone) levels and weight gain, particularly the bad type – around your tummy (aka visceral fat). The good news in this is that you can help make weight loss easier by reducing your stress!
What defines ‘Stress’?
…the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it. –Hans Selye (the famous physiologist who actually coined the term “stress”)
This incorporates both psychological stress and physical stress that is made on your body. You might be familiar with psychological stress. This is anything that makes you worry or anxious about your life. Job interviews, family issues, moving house, driving in heavy traffic etc. These are all examples of situations we find ourselves in life that weigh upon our hearts and our minds. Constantly thinking about these things and being unable to remove your mind from those thoughts raise your stress hormone in a huge way. And if you are unable to deal with your stress over a long period of time, this raised level of cortisol will start to wreak havoc on your body.
Physical stress is less understood. This is when your body is put under a large demand that it cannot cope with. For example, physical stressors can be insomnia, chronic infections, inflammation, autoimmune disease, environmental toxins, dieting or too much exercise. So even though you might feel pretty calm and chilled most of the time, and you’ve got some good ways to deal with the ‘stress’ in your life, these physical stressors can cause your body to respond in stress.
Our bodies are made to deal with stressful situations in order to protect itself of real dangers. A stressor or threat to the body activates a fight or flight response from the adrenal glands. The hormone that fuels this response is cortisol. It will cause physiological responses in your body to deal with the stress. For example, your heart rate will increase to pump extra blood into your muscles to get ready for action. Throughout the day, your body releases cortisol in a rhythm to get you moving throughout the day. Highest in the morning when you wake up, and lowest before you go to sleep. If you are dealing with stress constantly throughout your day this will disrupt your natural cortisol rhythm. One major problem is that you will have trouble sleeping, something your body needs to recover and rebuild.
Some other ways that a disrupted cortisol rhythm can wreak havoc on your body and cause you to gain weight is by:
- raising your blood sugar
- making it harder for glucose to get into your cells 1
- making you hungry and crave sugar
- reducing your ability to burn fat
- suppressing your HPA-axis, which causes hormonal imbalances
- reducing your DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone and TSH levels 2
- making your cells less sensitive to insulin
- increasing your belly fat, making your liver fatty
- increasing the rate at which you store fat
- raising the level of fatty acids and triglycerides in your blood
Negative Ways to Deal With Stress
FOOD: Most of us make many mistakes when it comes to dealing with stress. These are mistakes because while they may deal with the psychological stress we may be dealing with, they often place further physical stress on our bodies. So while we may feel a burden off our minds, we may be putting that burden on our hearts. ‘Emotional eating’ is one common way that people deal with psychological stress in their lives. A survey in America found that 40% of people respond to stress in this way. Often the kinds of foods we are drawn to are high in sugar and highly processed, contributing to weight gain. When we are anxious and caught up in psychological stress we can tend to eat without even thinking about what we are eating – which will mean you are more likely to eat more and feel less satisfied.
COUCH: Another negative way to deal with stress that many people are drawn to is low levels of activity. Often this might mean large chunks of time in front of the TV on the couch, in your comfy pants. Getting comfy on the couch in turn increases your temptation to overeat and reduces your motivation to get up and exercise.
SKIMPING ON LOOKING AFTER YOUR BODY: Often raised stress levels can lead us to forget to look after our bodies. Things like forgetting to eat, going to sleep late or skipping on workouts actually make the problem worse. Your body needs to be in healthy rhythm to reduce those cortisol levels.
Positive Ways to Deal With Stress
The best ways to deal with stress is to break down the link between food and emotion, and make healthy changes to the food you eat and the exercise you do.
BREATHE: Controlled breathing effectively reduces cortisol levels. Spending time throughout the day to control your breathing and breathe deeply will help your body to be less stressed. Practise breathing deeply before each meal. Think about what you are eating, the taste, what it looks like, what it feels like. You will get more in tune with your feelings of hunger or feeling full and learn how to control your mind.
EXERCISE: Exercise is awesome. It can decrease cortisol and release endorphins that make you happy. Exercise will also help speed up your metabolism making it easier to burn off extra calories. Over-exercising however can cause too much of a physical stress on your body, so it’s important to enjoy your exercise and not over do it. You want to feel good after exercise, not depleted.
Bust your worries and your fat away with us at AJs! We are a friendly community who are interested in helping you find a healthier you in 2018.