Could it really be that stress is making you gain weight? Perhaps yes! Our busy modern lifestyles have a lot to answer for these days. We often find that we are juggling so many things. And sometimes it just feels impossible to keep on top of everything that is going on. There is always so much to deal with – whether it’s concern for our own health, caring for others, financial and job worries and knowing what’s best for our children. It all adds up. And it can lead to long periods of chronic stress in your life.
So, does this additional stress play a part in weight gain?
It’s an interesting question and the answer is probably yes. And that’s because the way your hormones behave when you are stressed certainly contributes to and promotes weight gain.
So, what is going on?
Well, during periods of stress, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. This is your body’s fight and flight response to any perceived threat. In the past, when we were hunter and gatherers it was designed to enable you to run away from danger.
But these days it is more likely to be the stress of sitting in a traffic jam, being late for a meeting, missing a deadline or trying to achieve too much in one day. Whatever the threat, your body behaves in the same way : You produce cortisol and the ultimate goal of cortisol secretion is to give you fast energy.
The problem is that today, you don’t burn up that energy to run away from a tiger. And all the unused energy is stored as fat instead. Most of it is stored around your tummy, near to your liver. And that’s so it can be converted back into energy if required.
And this is really the catch in our modern lives
You have seen that cortisol is responsible for getting you the energy you need, mainly by increasing your blood sugar. But the problem is that stress today tends to be emotional and not physical. You don’t have to move to get away from the stress. And the excess sugar that has been produced just gets stored as fat.
But did you know that your food choices can also make your body think that it is being attacked?
Yes, food can stress your body too!
When you reach for foods such as sugar, white bread, cakes and biscuits etc (refined carbohydrates) and stimulants such as coffee, tea and coke, glucose hits your blood stream very very quickly. When this happens, insulin springs into action. Its role is to remove the sugar from your blood and put it into your cells. Once this action has taken place, your blood sugar can drop very low. Your body registers this and thinks once again it is under attack and needs fuel for energy. You are back in fight and flight mode. At this point two things can happen. Number one: You may reach for another sugary snack. And number two: Your body will once again produce cortisol in order to release sugar stores. And of course, if these sugar stores are not burnt off, they will once again be stored as fat.
This is what we call the blood sugar roller coaster
So, whether it is a psychological stress, or a blood sugar roller coaster created from the foods we choose to eat, the pattern is the same. In both cases you are trying to release your sugar stores. This is to either fight the danger/ stress you are dealing with or to control low levels of blood sugar.
And now here’s the tricky question.
What can you do about stress and weight gain?
Well, from a dietary point of view, you can train your body to understand that it is not under attack. And this is done by controlling your blood sugars.
One of the best ways to do this is to eat within an 8-10 hour daily window. Always finish your evening meal by 7pm and eat three distinct meals a day.
Try and eliminate all refined carbs from your diet. These are the foods that cause the sugar spikes and lows. This may sound tricky, but there are some easy quick wins. I always say, “if it’s white don’t bite”. So think about swapping white rice for brown, white bread for whole grain, white potatoes for sweet potatoes etc. By doing this, your body will get the message loud and clear that it does not need to store fat!
And make sure that you eat healthy fats and good quality protein with every meal. This is a sure way to give you a slow release of energy. It will keep you fuller for longer and avoid the blood sugar roller coaster.
But of course, when it comes to stress, it’s not just about changing your eating habits.
It’s also important to look at your lifestyle to see where you can de stress.
Can you find some time in your day, even if it’s just 10 minutes to put yourself first? One of my favourite things is a 10 minute online yoga session. There are so many to choose from these days and they don’t take long to do. But the difference it makes even in 10 mins is amazing. Or even a hot relaxing bath at the end of the day?
And then of course there is the all-important sleep that really helps to restore your body through the night. It’s worth having a gadget free couple of hours before bed. This is a great way to calm the mind and prepare for some restorative sleep.
So, in summary, stress in your life can certainly impact your shape and lead to weight gain. And it can play a role in those extra pounds around the middle. But things can be turned around pretty quickly. And one of the first important steps is to change the fundamental message the body is receiving through your diet and lifestyle.
If you would like to learn more about how to improve your hormonal health with diet and lifestyle, download my free guide here.