I’m sure you never imagined your stress can impact your weight, but it does!
In simple terms, stress is how we interact with our environment. Stress can be positive, negative, or neutral.
Feeling stress before a deadline can be good because it can help you get the job done. Stress becomes an issue when your response to it is negative. Stress affects us equally by our perception of it as by its mere existence.
Think about holding a cup of water. It’s not a big deal, right? How about holding it for an hour? How about a day? A week? The longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes. That’s how stress is. If you carry a burden for too long, then its weight will become almost unbearable.
When we’re under stress, the following things occur:
- Heart rate goes up
- Blood pressure rises
- Blood flows away from the digestive organs to our arms, legs, head for quick thinking, fighting or fleeing
How does your stress actually cause you to gain weight?
Let me introduce – Cortisol! You might have heard about it before… Cortisol is the stress hormone. When we’re stressed, the fight or flight response (Do we stay and fight or do we run away?) is triggered in our body. This leads to the releasing ofhormones,includingcortisol.
When you have cortisol in your system, you crave more food that’s high in sugar and fat, which can cause weight gain.
Why do we crave those foods then?
The body needs fuel (to fight or to run away) and it needs it FAST! Sugar is the fastest fuel the body can get (then comes the crash but that’s a different story). At the same time, other systems in our bodies will shut down in order to concentrate all our energy in that stressful situation so our metabolism will go down.
The other problem with stress and weight gain is that many people become stressed when they gain weight… (I didn’t over-eat and I gained 3 pounds?! I might as well eat another piece of cake) which will make a stress-weight gain cycle.
Very high levels of stress are linked to high levels of abdominal fat, which is bad news… Abdominal fat is not only aesthetically not wanted but it’s also linked to higher health risks than fat that’s stored in other areas of the body.
Another reason for that connection is that people who are stressed usually don’t have time to exercise hence the weight gain.
Chronic stress will cause muscle loss, as muscle tissues are broken down to supply energy to the blood stream. This excess energy, glucose, can lead to hypoglycemia and insulin resistance. Stress chemicals can lower the levels of serotonin - the brain chemical that creates satiety after eating and keeps our mood up. This is the reason why we sometimes eat more because we don’t feel full.
What can you do?
You cannot eliminate stress entirely (hey, you are human!) but you can provide your body tools for the imbalances that can cause serious disruptions.
- Proper sleep (7-8 hours)
- Meditate, Yoga, or Tai Chi
- Eat mindfully
- Eat 3 meals and 2 snacks daily to keep blood sugar levels even
- Do not eat after 8pm; this can help you fall asleep easier (which might be harder when you’re stressed)
- Eat more vegetables
- Eat before you’re starving and eat until you’re 80% full. Eating too much at a mealtime puts a similar load on pancreatic function, as does eating too much sugar and refined carbs.
- Choose healthy fats. Since stress causes your body to burn less of the fat you eat and store, aim to include healthy fats.
- Ditch the caffeine. When you combine stress with caffeine, it raises cortisol level even more than just stress.
- Don’t skip breakfast. Deficiencies in B vitamins, Vitamin C, calcium and magnesium can be stressful for your body, which lead to increased cortisol levels and food cravings. So eat breakfast that’s high in these nutrients like a grapefruit or an orange-strawberry smoothie (high in vitamin C), whole wheat toast (B vitamins) with almond butter.
Write it down – Writing down your experiences and reactions keeps your mind and hands busy and gives you the insight into why you’re feeling so stressed and might help you come with a solution to the problem you’re experiencing. You can also talk to a friend, family member, or therapist.
Another tip I can give you is to plan ahead. If you know in advance you’ll have a stressful week (at work, at school…) plan ahead – Try to cut vegetables and fruit ahead so you’ll have healthy snacks handy, leave 5 minute “window” once a day to meditate or take a 10 minute walk on your lunch break.