For most of us, stress is a fact of life. Hands up if you ever get stressed when running late for an appointment or find yourself scoffing down an unhealthy lunch at your computer as you furiously try to make a work deadline? If this sounds familiar, are you aware that stress is directly linked to weight gain? Chronic stress could be causing you to pile on the pounds, particularly around the middle, so until you address the stress, your efforts to lose weight may be like pushing water uphill.
Our stress response developed so that we could either fight or flee from an animal or attacker. Under stress, you need more energy so your body releases adrenaline and cortisol – hormones that release sugar from your body’s stores which creates extra energy. Your eyes dilate, your senses are heightened, your muscles tighten, your blood vessels open up to get blood to your extremities and your heart beats faster. You feel ready for action.
However, as energy demand is high, it’s diverted from other systems in the body and can have a negative effect on your hormone levels, your digestive and immune systems and also your nervous system, leading to sleep disruption, anxiety and even depression. It can also affect how you store food, causing you to gain weight.
Each time you call on your stress response, several parts of your body are impacted, whether you are stuck in a traffic jam and late for an appointment or facing a real live threat to your safety. We often think of stress as psychological, a sick relative we are worried about, work pressures or financial strain. Physical factors are often overlooked. These are factors which can also trigger a stress response in the body such as lack of sleep, a long gap between meals (as this may lead to a blood glucose dip), lack of nutrients in the diet or dehydration.
It has long been known that stress triggers the desire to eat more, which exacerbates weight gain by increasing caloric intake. In the 1990s, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Yale University discovered that the stress hormone, cortisol, triggers excessive abdominal fat deposits in both men and women. These findings showed, for the first time, that the secretion of cortisol was associated with both chronic stress and an increase of abdominal belly fat.
By becoming proactive about mindfulness, exercise, and stress reduction, you can create an upward spiral that increases metabolism and facilitates weight loss:
- Snack don’t starve. Don’t go hours without food or rely on sugary foods or caffeine to keep you going. Eat every three hours and always combine a protein, preferably vegetarian or fish, with a complex carbohydrate, e.g. oatcakes with peanut butter, carrot sticks and hummus, a clementine and a handful of nuts.
- Slow down at meal times. Savour each bite and pay attention to feelings of fullness as this can lower your cortisol levels as well as helping you increase satisfaction whilst reducing the amount of food you eat, thereby shifting the distribution of fat away from the belly.
- Start moving and stay in shape. Moving your muscles is an instant stress reliever as it fools your body into thinking that you are escaping the source of your stress. Put time in the diary for a swim or a walk. It doesn’t have to be difficult – a brisk walk at lunchtime or 10 jumping jacks will get the blood flowing and transport cortisol to the kidneys where it can be flushed out.
- Supplementing with a good quality B complex, zinc, magnesium and vitamin C can help support energy production and boost mood. Theanine is good for relaxing you and magnesium is known as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ a very calming mineral. Aim to include a wide variety of vegetables and two pieces of fruit daily in your diet along with some wholegrains for good sources of these nutrients.
- Sleep hygiene. Boost good sleep by listening to relaxing music and eating magnesium rich foods such as dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds and lentils. Stop looking at your computer, television or phone an hour before bed as the light from these devices can decrease melatonin levels which should be high in order to go to sleep. Enjoy an Epsom salts bath with a few drops of lavender at the end of a long day to support your sleep quality.
- Stay calm and don’t shout. You are in control of how you react to different situations. If you’re stuck at unforeseen roadworks, there’s nothing you can do about it, so try to stay calm. The herbal remedy Siberian ginseng can help control your stress reaction. Deep breathing for five minutes is also very effective at reducing circulating cortisol.
If you are concerned about your stress levels and how it may be impacting your weight, Glenville Nutrition Galway offer an adrenal stress profile, which assesses your cortisol pattern over 24 hours. We can also assess your levels of key nutrients to screen for deficiencies of vitamin D, omega 3 and all the vitamins and minerals which enables us to make personalised dietary and supplementation recommendations to support your needs.
Contact Sorcha Molloy, Nurtitionalist at Glenville Nutrition Galway here for more details.