Stress is everywhere. There isn’t one person on this planet who has not experienced it. Stress is good! It is a call action, gathering the strength to make job switches, get our work done and otherwise do things that push us out of the comfort zone. But like anything else, too much of a good thing isn’t good at all. In fact, it may be the reason you're gaining weight or struggle to keep it off.
What is the stress response?
Physical, mental or emotional pressures are everywhere. We experience physical stress when we run screaming from a haunted house. Emotional stress comes at the loss of a loved one, and mental stress can easily be attributed to burnout at work. It comes in many forms, but the body’s response to this tension is always the same.
The human body is built with a trigger system that sets off a cascade of hormones at even the slightest upset. Think of this like the fire alarm in a large building. Once a fire is detected, the sprinklers are turned on, the alarms sound to warn people, and the fire department is called to douse out the flames.
Once the body’s fire alarm is triggered, it releases cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone, which simultaneously shut down non-essential bodily functions, shuttle energy to muscles and raise blood pressure, all in preparation for a fight or flight response. Once you remove yourself from this tense situation, the system shuts off and the body returns to business as usual. Cool huh?
Let’s get into some office politics. Let’s say one of your co-workers puts their leftover fish in the microwave with the foil still on (wow, what an idiot!). The microwave starts to smoke, but the situation quickly resolves when you heroically unplug it. However, the smoke alarm is still triggered, spraying water everywhere, and alerting the local fire department. Seems like a whole lot of response for a false alarm.
The same happens in your body. Because the stress response is an age-old survival mechanism, it hasn’t come up to speed with the false alarms of the modern world. Suddenly, tight work deadlines and driving the kids to all of their god-forsaken activities become stressors, keeping our natural alarm systems constantly activated.
This is chronic stress.
Remember those non-essential body functions that our stress hormones shut down? It might not be imperative to digest that Hot Pocket if you’re running from a burning building, but at some point, turning food into fuel will become essential.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Let’s look at some symptoms of these “non-essential” systems shutting down:
Fatigue: needing several rounds of coffee to function isn’t normal.
Insomnia: hard time falling or staying asleep (even though you've been tired all day!)
Stomach distress: Your body isn't sending energy to your gut for digestion
Irritability and impatience
Low or no sex drive
Tense muscles and spasms
No memory: Aka, baby brain, flakiness, busy mom syndrome, etc.
Lack of concentration: no way to reign in the 600 thoughts flitting around your brain
Low immune system: getting all the kids’ colds
Low self esteem/feeling helpless
Ignoring it can lead to MORE problems over time:
GI disorders like IBS
Heart disease/high blood pressure
How does chronic stress stamp out healthy habits?
If it feels like things fall apart when stress sets in, you’re not alone. If a work deadline has you mindlessly shoving food in your mouth as you type away, or motivation to cook a healthy meal for the family falls by the wayside, you're likely stressed. Here’s what’s going on in your body and mind:
Stress increases hunger hormones: Initially, pressure causes a decrease in appetite, again, as you won’t be stopping for a doughnut while running from a burning building. But as chronic stress sets in, high levels of cortisol boost the hunger hormone, ghrelin. If this is constantly elevated, you guessed it, you are constantly hungry. And since your mind is focused on your work deadline, you may find yourself mindlessly overeating. Here comes the weight gain train!
Sleep disturbances: High levels of the stress hormone cortisol may affect how melatonin works. A boost of melatonin toward sleeping hours lulls you to sleep, and you wake as it wears off in the morning. Studies show that increased cortisol can alter sleep timing. To add insult to injury, lack of quality sleep raises cortisol even more!
Stress eating: When we're overwhelmed with stress, we tend to gravitate toward comfort foods high in sugar, fat and calories. Small amounts of these foods may not pose a problem may provide a bit of stress relief, but combine these cravings with mindless eating, and you easily set up for overeating.
Increases fat storage: Stress raises insulin, whose primary function is shuttling sugar from the bloodstream to be stored as fat, instead of being used for energy. If you're feeling fatigued and are gaining weight, this might be why! Given this next point involving betatrophin, this is a bad combination.
Fat burning slows: Chronic stress causes a rise in the protein betatrophin, which slows the rate at which fat stores are burned for energy. Combine this with the enhanced ability to store fat we talked about above, and we have a recipe for rapid weight gain with a slim chance of recovery. Even if you are working out and watching what you eat, it becomes extremely difficult to let go of extra weight.
Which of these factors do you struggle with most? Consider setting up a consult to help address what's REALLY holding you back from weight loss.
Reduce stress for weight loss success
Be mindful: Now that you are more aware of how your stress levels are affecting your weight loss goals, it puts you in a position of better understanding and control. Avoid overeating by practicing mindful eating. Shut off the TV, computer or phone and sit down, even if only for a few minutes, when eating. Focus on hunger cues and recognize when you are full.
Also be vigilant of where stress is coming from in your life, and your reaction to it. Pay attention to how you approach problems. Do you immediately feel overwhelmed and poised to say something nasty if someone makes you upset? Or, do you stop and think about a problem, if only for a few seconds, to respond calmly and logically? (this is absolutely a LEARNED practice-try!)
Work on stress relief: Weight loss becomes a complex challenge once stress hormones are involved. Reduce stress where you can and understand that it will always exist on some level. Think about your stress level as a bucket full of water. Once the bucket overflows, you're in trouble. Reducing stress in small amounts allows you to dump some out and keep the bucket from overflowing. Can you delegate some small tasks to lessen your burden? Where are some easy places to reduce tension?
Change your stress reaction: Everything can be a stressor if you want it to be. We all know someone who overreacts to anything and everything. Is it you? Use mindfulness and logic to put things into perspective. Was that nasty email sent to incite stress, or was the tone of the writer just not communicated well? Is there is a simple solution to the problem at hand? Is the worry worth the physical or mental burden, or should you simply let it go? Finally, don’t let the stress of others rub off on you. It’s infectious!
Work on sleep: Everything looks brighter after a good night's sleep (sorry new moms!) Some quality pillow time may help put your problems into perspective, and may provide some clear solutions. Stick to a regular schedule that puts you in bed at about the same time every night and waking at the same time each morning. Don’t burn the midnight oil working to deadline and sacrifice sleep! Studies show that fatigue lowers our brain capacity, so you’re likely not doing quality work anyway.
Make time: Surely, you've heard of the #selfcare movement. The number ONE barrier to reducing stress is the perceived lack of time. It’s time to put your health and wellness as high on the priority list as everything else and dedicate some time for number one. YOU! Maybe it's 30 minutes to go for a walk, 5 minutes to journal your thoughts, or just one minute to simply concentrate on BREATHING. You DO have time for something, so work it into your daily routine.
Weight loss is not just a calories in versus calories out situation. For many people, the combination of poor eating and exercise habits mixed with chronic stress that make weight loss impossible. Working to reduce stress not only brings you improved quality of life, but allows your body to finally rid itself of the extra weight.
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