Here’s the thing – the world has evolved at an incredible pace, and continues to do so, but our bodies have not. They’ve not adapted to handle the constant stimulation and pressure we’re put under, so as a result they think we’re regularly in danger and naturally they try to protect us – because their number one priority is to keep us safe.
Unfortunately the body doesn’t understand the difference between real and perceived threat. So even though we may only be stressing about the amount of emails in our inbox, the body thinks it must prepare us to be able to fight or run away, and so it sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events to ensure our safety.
Since we’re rarely actually fighting or running away however, this response is in fact having a massive impact on our health and waistlines. Luckily the strategies to manage and overcome it are quite simple, but in order to make them a consistent part of our lives we must first understand their importance.
Let’s take a look at a few of the areas most affected by the stress response.
The body’s first reaction to threat is to activate the adrenal glands. Located on top of both kidneys, these small glands release adrenaline to increase the heartrate and get the blood pumping harder and faster around the body, and cortisol to flood the body with glucose to give it immediate energy.
If the physical activity expected isn’t performed and the levels of stress are constant however, these hormones and the excess energy hang around. Cortisol then slows the metabolism to maintain the glucose supply and when it’s not used it’s eventually stored as fat.
Where do you reckon its favourite place to be stored is? The belly of course! And to add even more insult to injury, this belly fat is actually an active tissue so it responds to stress by welcoming even more fat.
The thyroid governs the metabolism, which is the complex chemical processes the body uses to covert food into energy. Metabolic rate refers to the rate at which the body uses energy to function – if more energy or kilojoules are consumed in a day than needed, the body will store these as fat.
The thyroid is highly sensitive to stress, so of course if it’s not functioning correctly it will affect your metabolism and your ability to manage your weight.
If the body is constantly being flooded with energy to help us fight or run away, it means our blood sugar levels are constantly being elevated and the pancreas is constantly releasing insulin to help the cells absorb the glucose and balance the sugar levels back out.
After a while however, the cells will eventually stop responding to these high and constant levels of insulin (like a defiant teenager who stops listening when they’re being told off), so the pancreas will secrete even more to try to get the glucose into the cells (the parent shouts even louder to get the teenager to listen), but eventually insulin resistance occurs (the teenager stomps off and slams the door), and the cells no longer respond normally to insulin.
Unfortunately insulin promotes fat storage, so again this will make weight management difficult. Also, if the brain senses the cells are not receiving their energy it may try to help out by sending hunger signals, which then commonly elicits a response to overeat. Hello more weight gain.
While all this is going on with the adrenals, the body slows and shuts down anything that is not integral to survival at that time. Digestion fits nicely into this category, so the body diverts the blood flow away from the gut and into the areas that are needed to fight or run, while simultaneously slowing down the part of the brain that controls the muscles involved in digestion.
As a result, food is not digested or eliminated properly and a toxic build up ensues. These toxins love to retain fat and excess water, and make you feel puffy and sluggish – all of which are not conducive to weight regulation.
If we are not absorbing the nutrients because our digestion is poor these calories are not fulfilling their destiny of building tissue or burning fat, so they turn to the dark side and cause yet more excess fat. The absence of these nutrients also triggers an urge to eat in an attempt to get the body what it needs. Often we have no idea what it really wants though so we give it the wrong thing, which leaves us feeling consistently hungry and in fat storage mode – making weight loss virtually impossible.
Sleep is the body’s opportunity to restore, regenerate and rebuild. The immune system goes to work, the pituitary gland releases growth hormones for muscle and tissue repair, and the brain organises all the information from that day allowing optimal memory and cognitive functioning when we’re awake.
If we’re not allowing all of this to happen our performance, both consciously and unconsciously, will be seriously disrupted. In terms of our weight the biggest disruption through lack of sleep is to the hormones Ghrelin and Leptin, which turn our appetite on and off, and tell the brain what to do with the fat (whether to use it for energy or store it).
Clearly if this process is confused we are going to experience unnecessary hunger, not know when we’re full and store fat when it should be burned. And that’s not to mention the disruption to our thinking if we haven’t had enough sleep – our ability to make good decisions, particularly regarding food and exercise, will be seriously impaired also. Again, hello weight gain.
Exercise is a stress on the body. Not necessarily a bad stress, but that all depends on what state the body is in. If it’s in a constant heightened state of stress then it will already have excess hormones swimming around so doesn’t need to add anymore to the fire.
We’ve been conditioned to think that if we just eat better and move more we’ll lose weight, but this isn’t always the case if there are underlying health issues and this stress response is constantly in play. Since exercise releases cortisol it is possible that if our cortisol levels are already high from stress, then exercise could actually be contributing to our weight gain.
Now I’m not saying you should stop exercising, not at all, but if you are in this situation it would be a good idea to re-evaluate the type and intensity of exercise you’re doing and perhaps bring it down a notch until the body is restored.
9 Ways To Manage & Overcome Stress-Induced Weight Gain
So how do we overcome these issues and allow our bodies to do what nature intended? Eliminate all of the stresses from our lives? Let’s be realistic here – of course that’s not possible. But what we can do is adjust the way we respond to them, which we can achieve through the following:
- Get adequate sleep – 7-8 hours is ideal
- Establish a sleep routine – try to go to sleep and wake up at the same times so a regular circadian rhythm can be maintained. Make bedtime a nice relaxing event (perhaps with a good book, guided meditation or a bit of sexy time). Turn off technology 30-60 minutes before sleep (as well as the over stimulation, the blue light from devices kills melatonin which is a hormone needed for sleep)
- Write stuff down – make a note in your phone or diary when you notice thoughts, feelings and symptoms (both physical and mental) come up, so you can start to identify your stress triggers and increase your awareness of your body
- Eat simple meals – no more than 7 ingredients, which means whole and natural foods as much as possible
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing and pay attention to the breath – take a minute or two to do 10 slow deep breaths and notice the wave of relaxation come over you (this helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight mode) which is overactive when stressed)
- Practice yoga – this is unbelievable in helping you get out of your head and calm your body
- Meditate – this is the best way to calm the sympathetic nervous system and allow the parasympathetic nervous system (aka “rest and digest” mode) to come out to play, therefore overriding the stress response and giving you a sense of calm and clarity
- Get professional advice regarding the best exercise program to suit your needs at that time (however if exercise is making you excessively fatigued or sore then that is a good sign for you to bring it down, so perhaps try swapping the gym for yoga and walking for a while to calm the stress response and restore inner balance)
- Do what makes you happy – schedule into your diary regular activities that make you feel good, as this communicates safety to your brain and calms down fight or flight mode. Easy and often is best here, so pick simple things like rocking out to a favourite playlist while getting ready for work, watching a funny puppy video on YouTube between meetings or shooting the breeze with the barista rather than looking at your phone.
Remember that the key to success here is: slow, steady and consistently wins the race.
Don’t feel like you have to employ all of these strategies all at once – pick one or two, nail them and then add on another one or two, until eventually you have yourself a lovely little routine that you feel comfortable with and that becomes part of what you naturally do.
The feedback I get from people all the time is that they can’t believe how much impact the little changes make – this could be the same for you too.
Rather than going all or nothing, try little and often – and watch the long-term results start rolling in.