The impact of stress on your waistline.
Stress can play havoc with your health full stop. Last week we saw how stress can impact on your sleep. This week I’m looking at how stress can affect your waistline.
Personally, I have experienced both weight gain, and weight loss as a result of stress. I’ve had the kind of big whammy stress where I can’t eat and the weight loss has been quick and quite noticeable. I’ve also had (as I’m sure most of us have) the kind of daily, ongoing stress where I’ve gradually piled on the pounds over a longer period of time.
So there are clearly different types of stress, but there are also different types of people. We all respond differently to the different stresses in our lives. For the sake of this blog, I’m going to look at the 2 types of stress I have experienced.
Firstly, the big, fat, ugly stress – the kind that can really floor you. Weight loss experienced as a result of this kind of stress, maybe following some kind of trauma, happens for several reasons:
The release of stress hormones can increase your metabolism. To and from the loo like crazy things we run. “Panic poohing” is my particularly unglamorous label for it.
High stress also speeds up fuel consumption, and the faster you’re burning fuel, the more fuel you need…
…but when I’ve been really stressed, I don’t seem to want food because I get that tight feeling in my tummy…that slightly sick feeling. Familiar anyone?
So if your body’s not receiving sufficient fuel from food, then it attacks your fat stores. As the body depletes fat stores, the body loses weight.
That all seems to make perfect sense to me – BIG stress can cause big weight loss in a relatively short period of time.
But what about ongoing stress, day to day stress, not the kind of stress that’s associated with some of life’s toughest times, but the kind of stress that’s associated with day to day life: work, relationships, finances, wardrobe dilemmas (did I just say that out loud?), exams…the list is endless. What impact does this kind of ongoing stress have on our waistline?
In a nutshell. stress that goes on for a longer period of time, is bad news for waistlines: it increases our appetities, makes us hold onto fat, and interferes with our willpower to implement / maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Psychology.com explains this well:
When your brain detects the presence of a threat, no matter if it’s an argument with a hormonal mum in the playground, or a nutter on the road, or your bank balance at the cash point, it triggers the release of chemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol. Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury. In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.” However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply. Fighting off wild animals, like our ancestors did, used up a lot of energy, so their bodies needed more stores of fat and glucose. However, whilst these days we definitely still experience high stress (although in very different ways…maybe an angry boss, rather than an angry lion) we often don’t work off the same amount of energy dealing with the stressor. Unfortunately, we are stuck with a neuroendocrine system that didn’t get this update, so our brain is still going to tell us to reach for the food, all too often that food is “junk”.
When we are stressed, few of us reach for carrot batons, instead we crave comfort foods, that tend to be easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, or salt. We crave these foods for both biological and psychological reasons: cortisol may cause us to crave more fat and sugar (biological) but we also may have associations with sweet foods and comfort (psychological).
Emotional eating, and mindless eating:
When we have a surge of adrenaline as part of our fight/flight response, we get fidgety and activated. Adrenaline is the reason for the “wired up” feeling we get when we’re stressed. While we may burn off some extra calories rushing round like an agitated blue arse fly, stress can also trigger “emotional eating.” Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response. Anxiety can also make you eat more “mindlessly” as you’re preoccupied with all the stuff going round in your head, rather than what you’re eating, how much you’ve eaten or when you’re feeling full.
I saw a good tip on prevention.com that has an alternative to reaching for food in our stressy moments…they say to “drop and do 10” instead. Moving your muscles is an effective, instant stress reliever…it can fool your body into thinking you're escaping the source of your stress. Exercise makes your blood circulate more quickly, transporting the cortisol to your kidneys and flushing it out of your system. But if push-ups aren't practical (or they’re your idea of Hell), just flexing your hands or calf muscles will apparently help move cortisol along.
Finally, there’s sleep, which we looked at last week. Sleep is a powerful factor influencing weight gain or loss. Lack of sleep, often caused by stress, can disrupt the functioning of ghrelin and leptin - chemicals that control appetite. We also crave carbs when we are tired or grumpy from lack of sleep. Finally, not getting our precious zzzz’s can erode our willpower and ability to resist temptation.
In summary, I think stress gets us all at some point or another, to some degree or another. I’m not sure stress is totally avoidable, but some of the knock-on effects from stress possibly are. So when stress comes knocking, you might not be able to keep the door shut and completely prevent it from coming in, but you can take control to a degree and try to ensure that it doesn’t spread like wildfire through your whole body. If you go into shut down and stop eating, you’ll have no strength to deal with the problem/s you’re facing. You need to eat healthily and stay strong so that you can fight the fight, and battle hard.
Equally, if you over eat (and eat the wrong things) when you’re stressed, you might just end up adding to your list of woes. Being healthy is incredibly good for one’s sense of well-being.
As I say every week though, I can’t give advice, only opinions. So if you can’t listen to me, then listen to the good old NHS. Their mantra?
Eat less. Move more. Sleep well.
Until next time my lovelies.
I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.