Stress is a major factor in modern life. Our busy, high-paced world often has us believing that we can cope with continually high expectations and energy output, when our bodies might be communicating something different. Weight gain that is hard to shift is often telling us to listen to our bodies and rest, when it may actually make us panic and feel we should be doing more – more exercise, diet and restriction.
But when we consider how much stress plays a part in laying down and holding onto fat stores, giving ourselves some nurture and self-care become the intelligent option. Research from Harvard Medical School in the US surveyed over 2,500 men and women aged between 25 and 74 and for women, along with job and money problems, strained relationships were the major contributor to weight gain. For men, it was most closely associated with job-related demands, financial difficulties and a low support network.
My book The De-Stress Effect explains how modern stress isn’t the same kind as that we evolved with. We don’t usually need to run away or stand and fight for our lives, our trials are less wild and more psycho-social – more head-based than physically challenging. Our ancient stress mechanism is still at play, but this fight-or-flight response now has to face modern stressors; over-stimulus, constant technology and worry from home and financial pressures. Often with little movement, little contact with nature and less emotional support from the ‘tribe’ as extended families no longer the norm.
In the first instance, the stress response involves the rocket-fuel like excitation of the hormone adrenaline. If stress keeps up though, the hormone cortisol takes over to signal the need to keep up this protective stance longer term. Unlike purely reactive adrenaline, cortisol has a presence in the body that governs energy and metabolic processes throughout the day. Ideally, it rises on waking to give us the impetus to get up and be more active in the first half of the day, dropping away slowly towards bed where it is low to allow the restful state of sleep.
When stress is long-term, cortisol is produced from the adrenal glands (like adrenaline) at times when it should ideally be low, interfering with the rest and recovery we need after a stressor has occurred. This isn’t just tiring, but affects our whole bodies. As we’ll explore here, chronically elevated cortisol can lead to loss of muscle tone and inhibit thyroid function, slowing metabolic rate and making weight loss difficult.
Stress directly causes weight gain around the middle
The stress response tells our bodies we need more fuel for all that possible fleeing or fighting. Immediately stored glucose (glycogen) is released from muscles and the liver and sent around the bloodstream to be more available. Trouble is, we usually don’t play out this physical response and so it goes unused. To protect itself from damaging sugar, our bodies turn those excess calories into fat. Cells in the abdomen have more receptors for cortisol than any other part of the body, so most of that fat gets stored around the tummy. People who produce excess cortisol tend to have bulky waistlines and apple-shaped bodies rather than pear-shaped ones.
Stress reduces fat-burning and muscle build-up
High sugar running round the system from stress (and the sugar loading it can cause) prompts release of the hormone insulin to move it from the bloodstream into cells for use as energy. High insulin keeps us in fat-storing mode and blocked from burning stored fat as fuel. If we also move our bodies too little we have a recipe for long-term weight gain. Moderating your insulin response by eating little sugar and fewer refined carbohydrates means your body will use up stored fat more efficiently. Reducing stress and exercising all help to regulate insulin levels.
Long term, this raised insulin production can eventually lead to saturated insulin receptor sites, which can no longer pick up the insulin hormone, a state called ‘Insulin Resistance’ or ‘Metabolic Syndrome’, associated with ‘apple-shaped obesity’.
Regulating cortisol and insulin:
Many people who struggle to lose weight eat little for breakfast and lunch and pile up the calories – often as refined carbs – towards the end of the day, when digestion and metabolism have slowed, making excess more likely to be laid down as fat.
Skipping breakfast in an attempt to lose weight can backfire, as studies show it tends to result in poor food choices throughout the day and even overeating later. If you don’t fuel up on rising, stress hormones may well take over to raise blood sugar levels, which means you’re starting the day from a fear-based state.
A protein-rich breakfast, in particular, has been shown to satisfy appetite for longer than a high-carb breakfast (like cereal), and healthy fats like nuts, avocadoes, wholemilk yoghurt, oily fish or coconut included at breakfast show better results in the level of morning blood sugar balance than low-fat options. Eating eggs for breakfast has been shown to help weight loss as they improve glucose/insulin response and food choices for the rest of the day.
Stress raises fat-attracting oestrogen
As well as the apple-shape that cortisol can direct create, its production may also lead to relative oestrogen dominance, as the stress hormone is made from progesterone – women’s other main sexual hormone, which balances out oestrogen. When oestrogen is at higher total levels than progesterone across a whole menstrual cycle, some women may see stress-related menstrual symptoms like heavier periods, a shorter cycle and mood-related PMS. For some, higher periods of stress can be seen to coincide with more difficult periods.
Oestrogen is the hormone that creates the female shape, so may be associated with weight gain on thighs and bum, especially in those with that natural body shape. This is an important storage for this hormone and we don’t want it too low, especially around and after the menopause – or bones and mood can suffer – but stress relief and spending time to calm go deep into our female health and body shape.
Stress slows down thyroid function
A state of continual ‘constant alert’ signals the need to conserve energy for potential action. As a survival response to this perceived danger, the adrenal glands tell the thyroid gland to go-slow by down-regulating its output. As the thyroid governs metabolism (the rate at which every body cell burns fuel or calories), lowered function means that weight loss becomes harder and harder.
Even if you measure ‘normal’ on a medical thyroid test, this gland can still be sub-optimally functioning i.e. just slow enough not to be hypothyroidism, but to affect metabolic rate. Supporting it through de-stress measures, exercise and blood sugar balance can help convince metabolism to speed up again.
Stress creates a sweet tooth
The stress response is energy-rich as all systems are in excitory mode and constantly producing the hormone, enzymes and neurotransmitters need to keep us in that heightened state. If we’re not balancing this out with adequate rest and time dedicated to calm and presence, it is basically exhausting. Years of high cortisol can result in crashes that leave you unable to create energy without sugar or stimulants. Weaning off these with good meals with plenty of vegetables and adequate protein can help us cravings these fixes and break the vicious stress-sugar cycle that creates fat storage and an inability to burn it off as fuel.
Our first food, milk, was sweet and then many of us were primed in childhood to see sugar as a source of ‘comfort or reward’. When we’re stressed we can quickly revert to wanting– and feeling we deserve – those comforting or rewarding feelings. Changing this perception means accepting that these are only quick fix solutions that ultimately rob us of sustained energy and a stable mood, while adding to weight gain over the years. If we pay attention to the feelings that healthy food leaves us more able to cope, then our bodies can begin to want that instead when challenge hits.
The highs and lows of a high-sugar and refined carbohydrate diet (white bread, white rice etc) means your body and brain receive inconsistent glucose energy supplies, with sudden highs followed by crashes. This can quickly affect mood and feed into sugar-addiction cycles that cause cravings, anxiety, insomnia and weight gain as we crave sugar to bring low blood glucose levels back off the floor. As these troughs can leave us feeling energy zapped, irritable, angry or unable to cope, it is a body imperative to get them up by whatever means. At that point you are at the whim of your biochemistry and in survival mode to not crash further into full hypoglycaemia.
Sweet craving emergencies:
If you do need something sweet, coconut, cinnamon and fruit are the best choices and dark chocolate has shown to help us cope with stress:
- A 40g/1.5oz bar of milk chocolate will contain not only dairy, but also as much as 7 teaspoons of sugar compared to a three-teaspoon average for the same weight of 70 per cent cocoa dark chocolate.
- Five or six dark chocolate-covered Brazil nuts have more of the nut protein present, so they come with more flavour and satisfaction.
Stress makes us crave junk food
In 2006, scientists used brain-scanning technology to prove that eating junk food is linked to the same emotional reward centres in the brain as those linked to drug addiction. When you munch a biscuit, its fats and sugars work on the stressed brain’s instinctive need to calm itself down. They signal release of pain-relieving opioids (which sounds like ‘opium’ for a reason), calming cannabinoids (think cannabis) and serotonin (the body’s natural ‘happy’ chemical) into the brain.
Trouble is, the ‘high’ never lasts long and is often accompanied by a subsequent mood drop that’s worse than when you started out, leaving you hungrier, crankier and craving more of the same. This stress-craving cycle is a type of self-medication, and as with other kinds (cocaine, alcohol and so on), it’s habit-forming: the more you do it, the more you want to do it. This habitual stress eating can lead to ‘hard-to-shift’ weight gain because it becomes your default way of dealing with pressure.
Recent research at Boston University has mapped how the brain can be retrained to enjoy healthy food and decrease sensitivity to the unhealthy, higher-calorie foods when appetite is satisfied by this type of eating – particularly healthy fats (see below).
Stress keeps interrupts our appetite off-switch
Stress, sugar and other negative coping patterns like shopping, stimulants and alcohol give us a sudden rise in the feel-good brain chemicals GABA, dopamine and serotonin, but cause crashes later, leading to cycles of dependence and an increasing reliance on them to ‘feel normal’. When these craving cycles also cause weight gain, lowered self-esteem can also feed into habits of bingeing and/or overeating.
Stress also affects how satisfied we might feel. It lowers sensitivity to the ‘satiety hormone’ leptin, produced by fat cells to tell the brain (in the hypothalamus) when we’re full after food has arrived in the bloodstream. This leptin resistance is believed to be a factor in over-eating or bingeing where there seems to be no ‘off-switch’ to appetite, but high leptin levels are present. Leptin responds to meal timings, meaning that if you snack often your appetite gets used to that and if you don’t, you’ll get used to regular meals, with appetite satisfaction and less excess calories between meals. The hormone and its sensitivity is increased by lowering insulin (blood sugar balance), stress reduction and exercise.
Ensure your diet has plenty of healthy fats:
Particularly the omega 3 oils found in oily fish (like salmon and mackerel) and in walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flax may help to prevent insulin resistance, prevent degenerative muscle loss and support serotonin utilisation in the brain to break craving cycles and help weight loss by improving leptin-related satiety after meals. Coconut can also satisfy a sweet tooth and its healthy fats (MCTs) are associated with low obesity and heart disease in cultures that eat it as part of their traditional diet, showing abilities to regulate insulin, prevent metabolic syndrome, reduce heart disease risk factors and manage weight.
Stress creates impulsive decisions
Stress puts into reactive mode, important to protect us from perceived danger, but swings us to impulsive, rather than reactive decision making. The impulsive self makes fast associations between a choice we face and how it’ll make us feel. It scans our environment for quick forms of pleasure and reward. For example, stress of a workload and exhaustion hits and the vending machine equals chocolate equals a sugar hit equals feeling more awake and focused.
Our reflective self, on the other hand, is more concerned with planning, reasoning and long-term goals, such as making a decision to lose weight or get healthy. Studies have found that when we’re under stress or have been doing hours of tough mental work, our reflective self is weakened and our impulsive self is more likely to take over, making us less likely to choose what we know will make us feel better long term and more likely to choose the instantly gratifying quick fix. Even if we know full well we might not feel better about our choice tomorrow, our impulsive self renders us less likely to care.
The good news is that eating mindfully – with full focus on the food and taste, and no distractions from work or television – has been shown to lead to weight loss and to reduce binge eating by steering us away from the impulsive. Paying full attention to the sensory experience in each moment, when eating and otherwise (including when we’re faced with that knee-jerk want for cake) can give us the space to breathe, come down from the stress high to a calm equilibrium where our reflective self can be heard.
Stress makes us want to move less
Exercise has been shown to lower levels of circulating cortisol naturally, be comparable – and in some cases better – for your mood than anti-depressants, increase emotional resilience and raise levels of immune-supporting probiotic gut bacteria (see below). Exercise increases your metabolic rate and lowers insulin levels, lessening the likelihood of stress contributing to excess fat around your belly.
Studies are now showing the strongest correlation between physical activity and psychological wellbeing is most pronounced with low to moderate physical activity. One study on 12,018 people found that those who made physical activity part of their leisure time were less prone to stress and feelings of dissatisfaction.
Walking is our most natural form of exercise. It clears the mind, improves mood, has been shown to decrease cravings and doesn’t cost us energy or stress out the joints and muscles in the way that running does. The most important habit for lowering stress and keeping up metabolic processes for weight regulation, is to get up and move at least every hour, so you’re not sedentary and your body is reminded of what it needs.
Yoga helps weight through resilience and stress reduction
15,000 long-term yoga practitioners were assessed by researchers and shown to put on lower-than-average weight over 10 years. The study didn’t draw conclusions, but one theory is that yoga practice increases our ability to resist the discomfort of cravings as just another ‘strong sensation’.
Other studies have shown lowered body fat levels, better appetite control and postural stability, body image and self-esteem and fewer food cravings. It’s likely these effects are linked to increased relaxing alpha brain waves and anti-anxiety GABA and decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Just one hour’s yoga practice a week has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety.
Stress reduces probiotic gut bacteria
Gut health influences all other body systems, from immunity to our ability to deal with stress. The inflammation, poor detoxification and hormone imbalance that can result from an unhealthy digestive environment are stressors in themselves. That environment relies on the presence of around 3kg (7lb) of beneficial or ‘probiotic’ bacteria – heavier than all of your skin cells. These good bacteria are quickly lowered by stress, sugar, alcohol, antibiotics and steroid medications, leading to digestive issues like bloating, where weight seems to fluctuate as fluid is retains around the abdomen and even other parts of the body.
Increase prebiotic foods to cope with stress
These are foods that feed your probiotic gut bacteria and have shown to help your gut cope with stress and weight loss through appetite control. You’ll get loads from increasing your vegetable intake, but the highest levels of the prebiotic inulin are found in Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, bananas, garlic, onions, leeks and dandelion leaves (for weeding gardeners out there).
Extracted from The De-Stress Effect by Charlotte Watts
As seen in Healthista.