The answer is YES. Stress can be exactly what is causing you to keep putting on weight even though you have been making healthy dietary choices and exercising regularly. Stress is anything that impacts your body whether real or perceived. It can be emotional in the case of dealing with family, financial and work issues, chemical from the foods, medications, alcohol or hormonal imbalances, or physical from type of job, illnesses, and surgeries to environmental allergies and exposure to pollutants. People experience and perceive stress differently; some people eat when stressed while others can’t eat at all. Either way, weight gain can happen. When your body is under stress its primitive response is to conserve energy and store fat.
Your adrenal glands are small glands that sit on top of the kidneys that control stress and fluid balance. They release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream and cause a chain reaction to occur. This response prepares your body for increased energy needs which elevate your insulin, sugar, and fat. The adrenal gland helps maintain blood glucose levels throughout the day, which is your fuel. Cortisol is your natural steroid and is responsible for helping the body cope with these stressors, it is the cease fire on the front lines and puts out your fires all day long. This stress response, “fight or flight”, was the way we would protect ourselves from danger. For most of us emotional stress can trigger this same response (which occurs way too often) causing insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome (high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol).
If you are not eating often enough or eating enough calories, your body goes into starvation mode which is a stressor. Our natural tendency in this mode is to store food for fuel. This affects your metabolism from burning calories at a regular rate throughout the day because if your body does not know when it will get more fuel in, it will turn down the rate of burning that fuel. Also if you are not eating at regular intervals throughout the day, your body goes into this starvation mode. Your pancreas releases insulin, signaling the body that it is hungry and so when we don’t eat, the circulating glucose in our bloodstream gets used up. This causes your blood sugar levels to drop causing hypoglycemia where you feel like you better eat something quick before you pass out. If you are eating enough calories for your body to make enough energy, the adrenal gland then needs to tell the body to make its own fuel called glycogen. Glycogen is made from our body breaking down muscle mass, not our fat.
With too much circulating insulin and low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia), we naturally need to eat something, like a simple carbohydrate. So having a small glass of juice or a piece of fruit is a healthy choice that would help with our immediate symptoms, followed by having something else more sustaining like protein and vegetables. But most of us reach for more sugary treats and when doing so tend overeat. This carbohydrate overload then causes our body to release more insulin which then leads to a slowing of metabolism and feeling fatigued, like your energy is crashing. This then triggers you to feel hungry again and the cycle continues. Meanwhile, every time you let your sugar levels go too low or too high, the food we eat goes right to storage. We then notice weight gain around the middle and muscle wasting in our extremities. Being overweight is a huge stressor to your system causing chronic elevation of stress hormones and can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, depression, memory loss, bone loss, joint deterioration, cancer, and immune diseases.
You cannot lose weight if you do not eat. When we limit our calorie intake our body does not have enough fuel which slows our metabolism and affects our ability to deal with our life stressors. Exercise is a great natural stress reliever, but if we exercise excessively and don’t consume enough calories, our body will feel stressed leading to muscle fatigue and low stamina. Working out at the gym with weights and walking on the treadmill is great for cardiovascular health and muscle conditioning, which may make you fit, but still fat. This is why you can train for a marathon and not lose a pound (just ask my husband).
Stress happens; it is a part of everyday life. But it is how an individual copes with a particular stress that makes the difference in how it impacts our bodies. Everyone needs to find a sense of balance by reducing their emotional stressors, exercise by just moving their bodies, eat a healthy balanced diet, sleep well, and supplement with vitamins to support our metabolism. All this when balanced equals your wellness.
Ways to reduce your stress, keep energy up, metabolism going, and promote weight loss:
- Deep breath, 3 sets of cleansing breaths in through nose and out your mouth
- REST lying down 20-40 min, no external stimulation, a time to digital detox
- Eat every 3-4 hours, 5-6 x a day –keeps metabolism going
- Eat within 1-2 hours of waking –you have not eaten in a long time and your body needs fuel to start your day
- Do not eat within 2-3 hours of going to sleep –anything has not been fully digested will go right to storage as fat.
- 100 (good) calories = 1 hour of energy, 100 calorie cookie pack will dump quickly, but 100 calorie almond pack will keep you satiated and provide energy.
- All snacks and meals should contain a protein and plant based fiber source
- Stay hydrated –drink plenty of water, you should drink about 50% of your body weight in ounces.
- Keep a food and activity log –when you are accountable for what you are eating, you will make better food choices
- Regular activity –walking, muscle conditioning, 20-40 min, 4-5 x a week
- Eat REAL foods –check food labels, if you can’t read it, don’t eat it.
- Avoid white carbs and refined sugars –Sugar is just as addictive as any illicit drugs. The more you eat it, the more you crave it.
- Healthy fats in moderation –olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, tree nuts, butter, grape seed oil, and sunflower oil.
- Supplement with vitamins that support your metabolism
- Sleep 8 hours a night –go to bed by 10-11pm
Submitted by Miriam Schwartz, APRN, FNP-BC of CT Women’s Ob/Gyn in South Windsor.
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