“You need to lower your stress.” How often do physicians tell their patients those words? How often do patients laugh inwardly and think, “If only s/he KNEW how stressful my life is!” Stress is a common occurrence in our modern world and people are greatly affected by chronic stress. This stress can wear people away day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. It’s the stress of unhealthy relationships, a dead-end job, raising children, caring for aging parents, a never-ending “in-box” of emails… the list goes on. Chronic stress occurs when a person has no hope or ending a miserable, stressful or otherwise negative situation.
Chronic stress takes a toll on our emotional health as well as our physical health. For people battling weight, emotional eating under stress can make the battle to lose weight more difficult.
Here are the five major reasons* stress leads to weight gain:
When your brain detects the presence of a threat, no matter if it is a snake in the grass, a grumpy boss, or a big credit card bill, it triggers the release of a cascade of chemicals, including adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury. In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.” However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply.
Fighting off wild animals, like our ancestors did, used up a lot of energy, so their bodies needed more stores of fat and glucose. Today’s humans sit on the couch worrying about how to pay bills or work long hours to make deadlines. We don’t work off much energy at all dealing with the stressor! Unfortunately, we are stuck with a neuroendocrine system that didn’t get the update, so your brain is still going to tell you to reach for that plate of cookies anyway.
In the days when our ancestors were fighting off tigers and famine, their bodies adapted by learning to store fat supplies for the long haul. The unfortunate result for you and me is that when we are chronically stressed by life crises and work-life demands, we are prone to getting an extra layer of “visceral fat” deep in our bellies. Your belly has an ample supply of blood vessels and cortisol receptors to make the whole process flow more efficiently.
The downside is that excess belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. The fat releases chemicals triggering inflammation, which increases the likelihood that we will develop heart disease or diabetes. And it can make it more difficult to fit into those lovely jeans you splurged on. Leading to more stress about money wasted! Unfortunately, excess cortisol also slows down your metabolism, because your body wants to maintain an adequate supply of glucose for all that hard mental and physical work dealing with the threat.
When we have a surge of adrenaline as part of our fight/flight response, we get fidgety and activated. Adrenaline is the reason for the “wired up” feeling we get when we’re stressed. While we may burn off some extra calories fidgeting or running around cleaning because we can’t sit still, anxiety can also trigger “emotional eating.” Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response.
In the most recent American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America:” survey, a whopping 40% of respondents reported dealing with stress in this way, while 42% reported watching television for more than 2 hours a day to deal with stress. Being a couch potato also increases the temptation to overeat and is inactive, which means that those extra calories aren’t getting burned off. Anxiety can also make you eat more “mindlessly” as you churn around worrying thoughts in your head, not even focusing on the taste of the food, how much you’ve eaten, or when you are feeling full. When you eat mindlessly, you will likely eat more, yet feel less satisfied.
Cravings and Fast Food
When we are chronically stressed, we crave “comfort foods,” such as a bag of potato chips or a tub of ice cream. These foods tend to be easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, or salt. We crave these foods for both biological and psychological reasons. Stress may mess up our brain’s reward system or cortisol may cause us to crave more fat and sugar. We also may have memories from childhood, such as the smell of freshly baked cookies, that lead us to associate sweet foods with comfort.
When we are stressed, we also may be more likely to drive through the Fast Food place, rather than taking the time and mental energy to plan and cook a meal. Americans are less likely to cook and eat dinner at home than people from many other countries, and they also work more hours. Working in urban areas may mean long, jammed commutes, which both increase stress and interfere with willpower because we are hungrier when we get home later. A University of Pennsylvania research study showed, in laboratory mice, that being “stressed” by exposure to the smell of a predator lead the mice to eat more high-fat food pellets when given the choice of eating these instead of normal feed.
Do you ever lie awake at night worrying about paying the bills or about who will watch your kids when you have to go to work? According to the APA’s “Stress in America” survey, more than 40% of us lie awake at night as a result of stress. Research shows that worry is a major cause of insomnia. Our minds are overactive and won’t switch off. We may also lose sleep because of pulling overnights to cram for exams or writing until the early hours. Stress causes decreased blood sugar, which leads to fatigue. If you drink coffee or caffeinated soft drinks to stay awake, or alcohol to feel better, your sleep cycle will be even more disrupted.
Sleep is also a powerful factor influencing weight gain or loss. Lack of sleep may disrupt the functioning of ghrelin and leptin—chemicals that control appetite. We also crave carbs when we are tired or grumpy from lack of sleep. Finally, not getting our precious zzzz’s erodes our willpower and ability to resist temptation. In one study, overweight/obese dieters were asked to follow a fixed calorie diet and assigned to get either 5 and a half or eight and a half hours of sleep a night (in a sleep lab). Those with sleep deprivation lost substantially less weight.
But do not lose hope! There are strategies to help you minimize weight gain when you are stressed:
Aerobic exercise has a one-two punch. It can decrease cortisol and trigger release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood. It can also help speed your metabolism so you burn off the extra indulgences
Mindful Eating programs train you in meditation. This helps you cope with stress, and change your consciousness around eating. You learn to slow down and tune into your sensory experience of the food, including its sight, texture or smell. You also learn to tune into your subjective feelings of hunger or fullness, rather than eating just because it’s a mealtime or because there is food in front of you. A well-designed study of binge-eaters showed that participating in a Mindful Eating program led to fewer binges and reduced depression.
Find Rewarding Activities Unrelated to Food
Taking a hike, reading a book, going to a yoga class, getting a massage, petting your dog, or making time for friends and family can help to relieve stress without adding on the pounds. Although you may feel that you don’t have time for leisure activities with looming deadlines, taking the time to relieve stress helps you to feel refreshed. It lets you think more clearly, and improves your mood, so you are less likely to overeat.
Write in a Journal
Writing down your experiences and reactions or your most important goals keep your hands busy and your mind occupied. This makes you less likely to snack on unhealthy foods. Writing can give you insight into why you’re feeling so stressed and highlight ways of thinking or expectations of yourself that may be increasing the pressure you feel. Writing down your healthy eating and exercise goals may make you more conscious of your desire to live a healthier lifestyle and intensify your commitment. Research studies have also shown that writing expressively or about life goals can improve both mood and health.
And when you are feeling stressed remember my Three C’s…
Didn’t cause it…
Can’t change it…
Can’t control it…
LET IT GO!!