In today's world, it is hardly surprising that many of us suffer from stress. More of us are becoming obese or overweight . But is there a connection? Could your stress be causing you to gain weight? The simple answer is yes but the reasons behind this may not be as straightforward as you think.
During the Paleolithic era, the only form of stress on our body would be physical. This would be in a situation when a lion or another human would attack us, where we would go into 'flight' or 'fight' mode (stimulating the sympathetic nervous system) and are ready for danger. Our adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) would be pumped out and then balance back when we were back into a safe, relaxed state (parasympathetic nervous system).
These days, our bodies don't know the difference between being chased by that lion or every day stress. It use to just be physical stress, now it is emotional, financial, work, family, environmental, technology and nutrition. Reducing stress in your life can be easier said then done BUT this could possibly be the reason why you have put on that extra layer of fat around your abdominal region. If we have elevated levels of our stress hormones for an extended period of time, then our body starts to store fat around our belly because it is going to put survival first before anything else (protect your vital organs). This can be stubborn fat and hard to lose if you don't do something about your stress levels.
High stress levels affect our digestive system. As we see in the diagram above, our stomach and intestinal motility are stimulated only in the parasympathetic (or relaxed) state. This is why some people experience digestive issues when they are under a lot of stress.
Craving Sugary Foods
The hormone that gets elicited when we are stressed is cortisol. Cortisol plays an important role in releasing sugar into our blood stream so that we can run away from that lion or whatever danger we are in. It makes you more alert. Cortisol makes us want to bring in more energy to cope again, with those energetic needs. So stress activates basic primal urges to eat calorie-rich food, which is, of course, useful to cope with those kinds of situations, from an evolutionary perspective. High levels of blood sugar stimulate the pancreas to release the hormone insulin which transports blood glucose into our cells. Cortisol is then constantly pushing out more glucose into your blood, stimulating the release of insulin can make your insulin more resistant. This then increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. High levels of insulin increase ghrelin (your hunger hormone) which increases your appetite particularly for those sugary or energy dense foods.
When we wake up in the morning, your cortisol levels are meant to rise which gives you energy to start your day. As the evening approaches, cortisol levels start to gradually decrease and get you ready for bed. If they are still elevated, this blocks the release of melatonin which is our sleep hormone. Stress can affect our quality of sleep.
When we are stressed, the immune system's ability to fight off antigens is reduced. This is why we become more susceptible to infections. Stress elevate's our blood pressure which affects our immune system. If we are chronically suffering from stress then this causes a lot of inflammation in our bodies which is the root cause for most diseases.
Stress creates this vicious cycle, this positive feedback loop. When you're stressed you crave unhealthy foods, but when you're stressed you also have a harder time sleeping, and when you have a harder time sleeping that elevates your levels of stress. It just sets off this chain reaction that keeps going on and on. Now normally, when we're stressed, the stimulus that causes the stress should be a short-lived one; that's what evolution predicted. ... So a lion chases you, that's a very stressful event, obviously, hopefully you managed to run away from the lion ... life goes on. But much of the stress we create today results from social conditions. If you think about the most stressful things we experience, they're often our lives — they're our jobs, our commutes, not having enough money, the list goes on. Those, of course, elicit chronic levels of stress. And when stress becomes chronic, then it helps feed a variety of mismatch diseases that make us ill, that make us depressed, that make us anxious, that make us overweight, which causes more stress and then keeps the cycle going.
Here are some ideas or ways to reduce or manage stress:
Reduce caffeine and alcohol.
Increase antioxidant intake (to decrease free radicals in your body)- think of a variety of coloured fruit and vegetables, wholefoods, good quality meat and eggs.
Meditation and Yoga- this has got to be one of the BEST natural therapeutic remedies in reducing your stress levels. Download various apps such as 'guided mind', 'calm' or 'headspace' and try to mediate for at least 10-15 minutes everyday. Try first thing in the morning and in the evening before bed.
4. Diaphragmatic breathing- this switches your body from the stressed to relaxed state. Try taking 20 deep breaths every time before you eat, and see if you notice a difference in the digestion of your food.
Adaptogenic herbs- try withiaia, ginseng, liquorice root, chamomile, ashwagandha etc as these herbs balance out your cortisol levels. Contact me here if you are interested in a supplement.
Use calming essential oils like lavender, frankincense, rose, bergamot, roman chamomile and diffuse in your room or rub behind your ears.
Do some gratitude writing. Gratitude may help relieve stress and anxiety by focusing your thoughts on what's positive in your life.
Spend time with your family and friends, do what makes you happy and gives you that sense of self-worth and belonging.
Learn to say no and take control over the parts of your life that you can change and are causing you stress.
Listen to soothing music like jazz, classical, Native American and Indian.
Get a pet that improves your mood.