Stress and weight control

Ask pretty much anyone how he or she is going and the answer is likely to be ‘busy’. No matter whether you are a corporate high-flyer or an at-home parent, life just seems to be busy. We all have lengthy to do lists, and try to pack as much as we can into each day. That can be great if you thrive on achievement of ticking off the list and getting things done. But can the stress, that inevitably accompanies such pressures of a busy life, be contributing to your weight?

The answer is a very definite ‘yes’. And the nature of that stress doesn’t matter, only your perception of stress. The first point is that when you’re stressed a really common coping mechanism is to eat, and to eat certain foods. This doesn’t affect us all in the same way. One paper reported that during a stressful condition approximately 40 per cent of people ate more, 40 per cent ate less, and the remaining 20 per cent ate about the same as usual. That explains why some people lose weight during a stressful time, while others are not affected and a good proportion of us gain weight.

The thing is, if you’re in that stress-eater group, you’re unlikely to be reaching for a big tuna salad to cheer you up. You’re much more likely to think ‘stuff it, I’m having a chocolate bar’. Fatty and sugary foods top the list for stress induced eating choices. When you eat such highly palatable foods there is a rise in the brain chemicals that make us feel more relaxed and happy. In the short term, this eating strategy probably works to some extent. But, if you become chronically stressed and, therefore begin chronically overeating energy-dense foods, weight gain is inevitable.

Of course, this may also be a learned behaviour. If, when you were a kid, grown ups around you used food to cheer you up, or keep you calm and quiet in certain situations, then that’s the strategy you’ve learned to use. If you were upset perhaps you were taken for an ice-cream to cheer you up, or you were cajoled into waiting patiently with the promise of a chocolate bar as a reward. We also learn from what we see adults doing around us, and on TV. You may have been conditioned to certain behaviour, such as having a glass of wine after a stressful day. We might like to believe we are all independent thinkers, but the truth is, so many of our behaviours are learned responses and they can be incredibly hard to undo.

There is also a physiological effect of stress. A number of hormones are involved but the principal one when it comes to to weight, is cortisol. When you’re stressed, cortisol rises and this can have any or all of three negative effects on your weight:

1. It increases your appetite, making it more likely you’ll overeat.

2. It’s a catabolic hormone, meaning it encourages fuels to be released into the blood and potentially for muscle to be broken down (to supply glucose for energy). This is appropriate if the stress is caused by a dangerous situation you’re getting ready to run away from, but entirely deleterious if you’re sedentary at your desk tearing your hair out over pending deadline.

3. Cortisol drives more fat storage around the abdominal area or, more correctly, it increases visceral fat; that’s the fat around the internal organs, rather than subcutaneous fat under the skin. This is the worst type of fat from a health perspective because it is associated with rises in blood pressure and risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

You know I’m not a big fan of kilojoule counting approaches to weight control and the work on cortisol only adds to why I think this is not a good idea for most people. One study found that the mental stress from kilojoule counting induced a stress response and a rise in cortisol!

So what can we do to try to lower cortisol levels? We can’t live entirely stress-free lives and neither would most of us want to, as the right amount of stress can be motivating. There is nothing like a looming deadline to focus your mind and get you completing tasks. The trick is to keep that level of stress manageable, and to recognise when the balance is tipping in the wrong direction. If you’re snapping at your partner or your kids, feeling as if you can’t cope, turning to food or alcohol as a coping mechanism, or find it hard to slow your mind and enjoy the moment, then it’s probably time to think about how you are currently managing your stress.

Tips to Manage Stress

Exercise. While acutely exercise actually raises cortisol levels, chronically it can help to bring them down. When you’re really stressed nothing beats going for a run to clear your head or punching a boxing bag to let out your anger and frustration.

Go for a walk. When we’re stressed it can be hard to see that the most effective thing to do is to take a break. Going for a walk where you get fresh air, some sunshine and space to think through and organise your thoughts just might give you clarity.

Yoga. No longer just for those with a hippy streak, yoga has so many benefits and is accessible to just about all of us. You can choose between more meditative forms that centre on breathing and flexibility, or stronger styles that are truly a full on workout.

Meditation. This needn’t be full on mantra, yogi-floating meditation (unless you want it to be). You can simply learn mindful meditation that you can use in any five-minute slot of the day when you need to just take a moment to breath and calm down. There are a number of excellent studies in support of meditation to bring down blood pressure and manage stress.

Fish oils. There have been a number of studies showing that taking fish oils improves body composition (i.e., increases muscle mass while decreasing fat) and the effect seems to be due at least in part to a decrease in cortisol. I recommend taking a daily supplement and consuming oily fish at least twice a week.

Sleep. Aside from having an independent impact on weight control, sleep is also important for stress management. Of course, stress may be stopping you from sleeping well, so this is a double-edged sword. What is clear is that for good health and wellbeing you must address sleep issues and aim for seven to eight hours on most nights.

Tea. Having a cuppa really can reduce your stress levels. Tea contains an amino acid called theanine and it has several effects on the brain that induce relaxation and relieve anxiety. Green tea may be especially good on many health levels, but good old black tea such as English Breakfast will also do the trick.

Laugh. Laughing is good for us physiological and psychologically. Get together with friends or family who make you laugh, watch your favourite stand-up comic or rent a comedy movie. Your brain chemistry shifts, your blood pressure comes down and stress is well and truly busted.

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