Many of us have worked hard to lose weight only to find that that scales aren’t turning in the right direction. We are eating a clean diet, exercising three times a week, but we are still not losing weight. If this is true for you, it may be that an unknown culprit is conspiring against you in your plan for healthy weight loss: stress.
An effective stress management system can be the missing ingredient preventing you from obtaining the strong, good looking, and healthy body you are seeking. Continuing to neglect this vital area of weight loss can be a costly mistake. While we know chronic stress is not good for us, many of us have no idea what it does to our bodies and how it undermines our health. Here I’ve listed some of the biological pathways through which stress promotes weight gain.
How stress promotes weight gain
Stress encourages the body to store fat.
Stress activates our body’s fight or flight response. It produces hormonal changes signaling to our muscles the need for quick energy. The muscles get this energy by increasing insulin production to move sugar from the blood to our muscles. This physiological response makes us more alert and alive in a stressful situation. We are stronger, quicker, and can think faster. All of these responses to stress are helpful in keeping us alive in dangerous situations. However, if our body does not actually use this surge of energy to react, we store this unused energy as fat. In situations of chronic stress or worry, our body produces the same increases in sugar and insulin that creates new layers of fat. Much of the fat tissue that is produced from chronic stress is “visceral fat” that builds up deep in our bellies. This can be seen in the “pot belly” we gain as we age. Visceral fat in the belly is the most life threatening fat and the hardest to get rid of.
Stress encourages emotional eating.
We have all experienced the food cravings that occur when we are feeling stressed out. For me it’s starchy and fatty foods like mac & cheese and fried chicken. This connection is so strong and immediate that we often find ourselves eating before we are even aware of it. When we become aware, we are already eating a bag of chips or in the refrigerator nibbling on left overs. We know that this pattern of mindless eating undermines our health goals and we often blame ourselves for not having enough willpower. Yet, science shows that there is a biological basis to this pattern of mindless emotional eating. Researchers suggest that we might actually have a “flight, flee, or chow down” response to stress, meaning that the activity of eating physiologically relieves the stress in the same way as the reactions to flee or fight. Jason Perry Block, MD, an assistant professor of population medicine at Harvard, “This happens, in part, because the body releases chemicals in response to food that might have a direct calming effect.” Thus emotional eating is a learned habit that is connected to biological triggers and rewards.
Stress promotes inactivity.
Chronic stress produces the couch potato syndrome. In the APA study “Stress in America”, 42% of Americans reported watching television more than two hours a day to relieve stress. Unfortunately, this strategy of stress management actually increase weight gain and other health complications that arise from a sedentary lifestyle.
Stress lowers your metabolism.
In their pioneering research, Profs. Annette deKloet and Eric Krause discovered a “fat to brain feedback network”. This study suggests that the density of fat tissue influences the way the brain controls stress, regulates energy and other metabolic activities. It’s not just that stress encourages your body to produce more fat, but that the fat changes the way your brain regulates your metabolism Click & Tweet! . While in the short term this is adaptive, the fat to brain feedback network under situations of chronic stress is dangerous.
How to relieve stress and promote healthy weight loss
The good news is that we can reverse the pattern of weight gain directly implementing a stress management system Click & Tweet! . An effective stress management system will not only reduce your current levels of stress, but will promote healthy weight loss, increase your energy, boost your immune system, and heighten your joy. You will look and feel better and get more enjoyment out of the people and activities in your life. I’ve listed five activities you can do to begin implementing an effective stress management system. These activities will quickly reduce your level of stress and promote healthy weight loss.
Exercise is a great stress reliever because it actually uses the increases in insulin and sugar created by stress in more productive ways. It also promotes the release of endorphins which make us feel good, think “runner’s high”. However, exercising for stress relief should be moderate and not too rigorous. High intensity exercises actually raises cortisol levels, contributing to over eating and increase and fat production. Think a brisk 20 minute walk.
Sleep reduces feelings of stress, promotes healthy weight loss, and increases well-being. Most Americans are sleep deprived. We should strive for 6-8hrs of sleep each night. If worry or anxiety is keeping you from getting a good night of rest, some of the activities below can help.
Meditation is a powerful relaxation strategy that has been proven to lower stress, improve health, and increase our sense of well being. The wonderful thing about meditation is that you can do it anywhere and you can reap the benefits of meditation with a small investment of time (10-20mins/day). Other relaxation techniques (deep breathing, listening to music, walking in nature, taking a bubble bath) can also be used on a daily basis to reduce stress and promote weight loss. What is most important is that you integrate these behaviors into your daily life.
We eat every day, but do we eat mindfully? Mindful eating is a slow sensory experience of food. It encourages us to notice the color, smell, taste, and texture of our food and to eat slow enough to enjoy the experience. Mindful eating is the direct opposite of fast food or tv dinners. A research study of binge eaters showed that participating in mindful eating program produced fewer binges and lower rates of depression. Mindful eating can lower our stress, improve our mood, and prevent our over eating Click & Tweet! .
While the above techniques may help us manage the levels of stress in our lives, we need to engage in structured self-exploration to identify the causes of stress in our lives and actively address them. Living under chronic stress compromises our health, career, relationships and sense of well-being. It is up to us to commit to identifying and eradicating the sources of our stressful lifestyle. Processes of self-exploration that are research-proven to be effective in increasing emotional and physical well-being are: journaling, counseling, and working with a life coach. Choose the method that works best for you, but by all means commit to your personal development. Through your process of self-exploration, you can uncover ways of thinking that are increasing stress and weight gain, as well as develop a plan of action to move you closer to your goals of health, peace, and joy.
You can not change your genetic makeup, but you can create a strong, lean, healthy body. Implementing these five components of a stress management system will permanently transform your body and your life Click & Tweet! . Most people acknowledge valuable information that could help them achieve their goal, but never act on it. You could be different.
I’d love to hear about the improvements you are seeing in your body and in your life as you implement your stress management system. Leave a comment below or email me.