By: Sharon McLemore RN MSN NP-C
We’ve all heard the old saying ‘stress kills’, but what does that really mean? Ongoing high levels of stress can cause hormonal changes resulting in detrimental chemical changes in the body. These chemical changes increase cravings for sugary, fatty foods, which in turn result in weight gain. Extra weight gain combined with stress induced chemical changes can lead to serious health problems including:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
Even if you are exercising regularly and eating well you can gain weight if you’re chronically stressed out. When you’re under stress, the brain perceives the stress as a threat and responds by releasing a cascade of chemicals and hormones. This complex cascade releases over 30 different hormones including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol (also known as the stress hormone). Epinephrine released during stress circulates through the body. Persistent high level of epinephrine can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries, increase blood pressure, and raise the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
While in the short term the epinephrine helps you feel less hungry, when the effects wears off, cortisol is released signaling the body to replenish your food supply. Rising cortisol levels increase blood glucose that in turn, cause insulin levels to rise. As insulin rises, blood sugar drops and you start craving sugary, fatty foods. Prolonged elevation of cortisol levels contribute to increased appetite, a build-up of fat tissue, and weight gain due to increased storage of unused nutrients as fat. This fat is often seen as an extra layer of visceral (around organs) fat deep in the belly. Increased fat releases more chemicals that trigger inflammation thereby increasing the likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes.
Prolonged stress causes surges of epinephrine which can make one feel fidgety or “wired up”. While you may burn of some extra calories while running around because you can’t sit still, anxiety can trigger emotional eating as way to calm down. Below are some guidelines for controlling stress:
- Recognize warning signs of stress – anxiety, irritability, muscle tension
- Focus on what you’re doing instead of the endless to-do list
- Before taking that bite – ask yourself are you really hungry or are you just feeling stressed or anxious?
- If tempted to eat when not hungry – find a distraction. When you are hungry practice mindful eating – slow down and experience your food
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. Grab a protein drink on your way out the door. Protein takes a longer time to digest and thereby keeps you fuller for longer. Skipping meals can slow down the body metabolism, decrease focus and increase stress due to low blood sugars causing you to over eat at the next meal
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables
- Keep sugary/fatty comfort foods out of the home and office
- Keep a record of you behavior/eating habits. Look for patterns of weakness and figure out how to avoid/overcome them
- Sharpen your problem solving skills so you can anticipate challenges and cope with setbacks (reducing stress)
- Practice relaxation skills – exercise, yoga, stretching, massage, deep breathing, meditation
- Engage in regular physical activity. Aerobic exercise decreased cortisol and triggers the release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood. It can also speed metabolism so that you burn off extra indulgences
- Get adequate sleep. Stress causes decreased blood sugar which leads to fatigue. Caffeinated beverages and alcohol disrupt sleep cycles. Lack of sleep disrupts ghrelin and leptin – chemicals that control appetite. We crave carbs when we are tired or grumpy from the lack of sleep causing our willpower to erode
- Get encouragement from supportive family and friends
- Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re overly stressed – this discourages impulse purchases.
Have your list and buy only what’s on the list
- Limit the caffeine. Excess caffeine (especially if you add creamer or sugar) can promote weight gain and insulin problems
- Get some sun shine. Morning light helps regulate your internal clock thereby aiding your sleep schedule. 20-30 minute of morning sunshine between 8am and noon
Get that stress under control and keep your weight in check. The body has a remarkable ability to adapt. The body can recognize extra weight as normal and get comfortable at that weight (establishing a new set point). When this happens it can be a significant struggle to lose the weight. So, keep stress under control, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep!