How Stress Affects Your Weight and What You Can Do About It
Life often pushes us to the max and we tend to blame a lot of our issues on the resulting stress. Can't sleep...you’re stressed. Digestive issues...stress. Can't lose weight...it's stress.
Stress isn’t ever fun to experience, but the type of stress that negatively impacts our health is sustained stress. Short term stress is often motivating and helps to keep us alert and safe. Long term stress collects over time, from many different sources, and has health consequences affecting any area of the body.
Stress impacts our weight in a couple of ways. One, it increases our appetite and hunger and makes eating feel more pleasurable and rewarding. Second, stress slows down our metabolism.
It's impossible to avoid all stress in our everyday, busy lives. Between our commutes, feeling spread thin, work pressures, finances, planning for the future, deadlines, family and friendships and maintaining your home, it can add up to some serious stress. But we also have a lot of control over our sources of stress and how we experience it.
Although stress and its many effects seem inevitable, you're not powerless! It helps to understand the many causes of stress and how it might affect your body, especially if you're weight conscious, to then adopt tools to manage and navigate it, minimizing its negative affects on your body (and life).
Types Of Stress
Sources of stress are usually easy to identify, like a job, sitting in traffic or a big upcoming life event. But many aren't so obvious. Each of us handles stressors differently and has a unique threshold where symptoms can arise. It's important to note that stress is cumulative and can come from both external and internal sources.
External stressors are lifestyle, environmental and behavior based. These are technically controllable.
Job and work
Family and relationship issues
Commute and traffic
Too many obligations
Overly full schedule
Living out of alignment with yourself and goals
Intense, long or too frequent exercise
Unhealthy lifestyle (food, skin care products, sedentary, lack of self care)
Not eating enough and restriction (dieting)
Carbohydrate restriction/ low carb diets
Too long of gaps between meals and fasting
Internal Stress comes from within and our body's response to our diet, lifestyle, environment and behaviors. These are not directly controllable.
Anxiety and worry
Unstable blood sugar
Heavy/ toxic metal build up
Synthetic chemical exposure (from pollution, water, food, substances)
Imbalanced gut bacteria/microbiome
How Does Stress Affect Your Weight?
There are a few things that occur inside your body as a result of stress, that affect your eating habits, metabolism and weight. I'll try to make this the least boring and simple that I can, it's a dense topic!
When you experience stress, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol in response, which increases your blood sugar. The more stressful the event, the more adrenaline, cortisol and blood sugar will increase. When your blood sugar is elevated, your blood is thicker, so your body lowers it back down to normal quickly (using insulin).
Quick changes in blood sugar (going from high to normal/low) affect your mood, hormones (especially appetite hormones), body/belly fat, and how you feel overall. In the short term this shift can cause:
Enhanced flavor of food, especially carbohydrates
Hanger and moodiness
Lack of focus
It gets a bit more complex. When you're stressed for a longer period of time, cortisol becomes chronically elevated. You may experience the above symptoms chronically too, but it also leads to deeper issues.
Sustained stress causes your blood sugar to be consistently less stable, with more peaks and valleys. The combination of high cortisol and unstable blood sugar puts your body in fat conservation and storage mode, rather than fat burning mode. It also affects your hunger, appetite and restraint around food. You’ll genuinely feel hungrier and like your body needs more food, which is tricky even if you’re an intuitive eater or eating healthy.
To combat these affects, you might restrict carbohydrates or calories, have long gaps between meals or do intense and frequent exercise, but this is counter productive because your body perceives that as starving/danger and elicits the stress response. You might eat more to satisfy your hunger and cravings, either larger portions or more carbohydrate foods, which causes further blood sugar imbalances.
Stress and an unstable blood sugar can wreak havoc on your fragile hormone balance, including testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, thyroid, leptin and grehlin. Each one has a different role in regulating your metabolism, hunger, satiety and appetite, but collectively influence everything weight related.
Metabolism, Energy & Wellbeing
Sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen and progesterone) greatly influence your lean body mass, fat gain and distribution and overall well being and attitude. You want these to be in balance to optimize your metabolism and sense of vitality.
The more lean muscle you have, the faster your resting metabolism will be. The better you feel the more likely you are to maintain healthier habits, have natural restraint around food and to be more active.
Metabolic Rate & Energy
Thyroid hormone is a master hormone that influences your energy levels, digestion and metabolism (among many other things). When cortisol is elevated due to stress, it affects your thyroid hormone in two potential ways. It can cause hypothyroid, where the thyroid gland doesn't make enough thyroid hormone and/or it can prevent your body from using thyroid hormone effectively, even if your levels are normal.
Either way, you'd experience hypothyroid symptoms. Both scenarios slow down your metabolism, digestion and decrease your energy. With decreased thyroid function it’s harder to be active and easier to gain weight, even if you eat healthy and stick to portions.
Natural Appetite Suppressant
Leptin is a hormone that makes you feel full and is your natural appetite suppressant. When you're stressed and cortisol is elevated, especially chronically, leptin decreases. As result, you'll genuinely feel the need to eat more.
Hunger & Appetite
Grehlin is a hormone that makes you feel hungry, stimulates your appetite and makes food (especially carbs and sugar) taste better and more pleasurable. Stress (both elevated cortisol and low blood sugar) increases grehlin, which stimulates hunger. Grehlin also makes carbs, both savory and sweet, more satisfying, so it’s much easier to overeat.
So, what can you do about it?
Long story short, stress has a negative effect on your hormones and blood sugar, which causes your metabolism to slow down, intense cravings, genuine hunger and enhances the flavor of foods. Further, restriction and worrying about your weight and eating habits add fuel to the stress-response-fire, making weight control that much harder. So how do you regain some power?
First remember that stress is cumulative and the weight gain affect didn't happen overnight, even if it seems that way. Being gentle with yourself is the first most important step. Take the pressure off of yourself from unrealistic expectations and know that it takes consistency and some time to experience results in reducing stress and its affects.
This is a simple (but not necessarily easy) 3 step strategy to address stress at it’s roots, and manage it better as it presents in life and as you work to reduce it. On some level, it will always be a work in progress. It takes considerable commitment and patience, but it’s worth the effort.
Reducing Your Stressors
Set boundaries and say no. We're taught that we have to put ourselves behind the needs of others, but as we do this, we reject our intuition and risk living out of balance. This creates tension and stress. Instead, stick up for what you need and want, which might feel uncomfortable to put yourself ahead of others. The truth is that you will have more to give when you're feeling your best.
Delegate. A packed schedule and too many responsibilities gets overwhelming. You can reduce this form of stress (additional to the above) by delegating some jobs, like home-care inside and outdoors and/or child care, and reevaluating your priorities and if you’re spending your time accordingly.
Embrace the hard changes. Change what you dislike in your life that's causing you stress. It could be anything, a job, relationship, living situation..
Address your fears. We often stay stuck, and our thoughts spiral, because of our fears. Fear of failure, disappointment, not being good enough and losing security, safety and the things we love most. Rather than being present, leaning into fear (takes some courage!) and taking things one step at a time, we avoid and numb. Though this prevents us from experiencing the full range of emotions, including joy. Confronting your fears can be a powerful way to reduce your stress at its roots.
Managing Stress in Healthy Ways
Practice mindfulness and meditation. I realize this can be generic advice and easier said than done, but it really does help when you're consistent. Things that help are meditation (guided or self guided), yoga, spending time in nature and exercise (especially repetitive movement like jogging, walking). Take the time to be present, conscious and appreciate various parts of your day, no matter your mood. These help to relieve accumulated stress and rewire the brain and body to be less reactive. Personally, I found the book Bliss More really helpful in learning a new and way easier approach to meditating and use The Honest Guys for guided meditations.
Self Care. This is about so much more than treating yourself to a shopping spree, facial or massage. Though treating or indulging yourself certainly helps, it's really about self compassion. We are so hard on ourselves about various things, most of which is not living up to unrealistic expectations. Try paying attention to how you talk to and about yourself, and shift that to as if you were talking to someone you cared about. Doing acts of self care become more powerful when you do them because you feel you deserve it, are worthy of making yourself a priority and feel proud of yourself.
Tackle The To-Do List. Procrastination is a huge source of stress, and the longer we put things off, and the more the list grows, the more stress we feel. Have the conversation you've been putting off, start working on that project and make changes you've been wanting to make.
Declutter your space. Clearing clutter in your space, helps clear a cluttered mind too.
Eating To Stabilize Blood Sugar
Rather than restrict and punish your body, nourish and support it. Food isn’t the enemy. Focus on choosing nutrient dense foods, getting back to basics and making it simple and flavorful. Eating balanced meals with fat, protein and carbs that have good fiber, and eating every 3-4 hours, helps achieve more blood sugar balance.
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