Why Stress Can Make You Gain Weight Faster Than Grandma’s Cheesecake

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You may be wondering why I’m writing about the “w” word at all. Many of my clients and blog readers know that in my work I de-emphasize the focus on weight, aiming instead to help clients find a more balanced, healthy relationship with food — no matter one’s size or shape. I believe in eliminating the struggle around food and weight, so that one’s body settles into the healthiest place it can.

That said, many of my clients want to lose weight (and you may want to as well, which could be why my catchy title drew you in). There is no denying that the desire to lose weight and be thinner often drives problematic eating behaviors. If you fear weight gain, you may not feed yourself well all day, only to find yourself binging at night. If you want to be thinner, you may make food choices that are about calories and not about your own body’s wisdom about what to eat in that moment. Then you feel unsatisfied, and find yourself looking for the cookies. So, by focusing on weight loss — instead of balance, health, and nourishment — when you eat, you may promote the very relationship with food that you don’t want to have. Ironically, trying to lose weight can keep you stuck in a struggle with food and weight.

There are many ways in which body weight is not determined by how much food we eat. Some of the ways that I won’t address in today’s blog post include metabolism differences, heredity, hormones, and even something that I just learned more about recently: epigenetics. The short story on epigenetics in this context is this: the way your parents and grandparents ate when you were being conceived may have an effect on your body weight.  Most interestingly, a study of Dutch famine victims showed that parents who conceived children during the famine went on to have children who were significantly higher weight. It’s as if these children entered the world as caloric-energy-conservers, ready for famine, but then they grew up in a world where food was abundantly available and couldn’t adjust. Fascinating… and yet another reason not to diet during pregnancy!

Today’s blog post will focus on one of these non-food reasons behind weight gain: stress. No, this is not an article on how to “meditate yourself thin.”  I still believe that putting too much attention on weight loss is counterproductive to healing from emotional or disordered eating. But understanding the way that stress can effect weight may ease any blame that you place on yourself about where your body is at — and further encourage you to find ways to ease the stress in your life.

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It’s no surprise that stress might have a role in weight gain. I know that when I have a particularly stressful week, I feel heavier in my body — literally weighed down by the burden of whatever is on my mind. But aside from that general feeling of burden, stress can actually effect our hormonal system in a way that encourages appetite and weight gain. Here’s how…

Your day at work feels pressured or your children are pushing every limit all day (or both). Your professor just assigned another paper and you have two due already that same week. Your partner just got laid off, at just the time a major bill is due. Stress comes in many different forms. And it can also come to us via the internet and TV, as so many of the stories in the news are bleak. Acute stress can initially decrease one’s appetite, and this is an adaptive response that primes us for “fight or flight.” When running from a saber-toothed tiger, it wasn’t such a good idea for our ancestors to stop for a snack. We all know, however, that stressors more chronic than hungry tigers can often lead us to eat as a way to soothe ourselves, escape our minds for a moment, or make us feel better in the way that only chocolate can. On top of this emotionally-driven increase in eating that some of us have in response to stress, there is a very real hormonal shift that happens in the body which encourages us to keep eating.

Here’s how it works. The hormones that are released when we are feeling stressed include adrenalin, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. High levels of adrenalin and CRH actually decrease appetite at first, as in the saber-toothed tiger example above, though the effects are not lasting. Cortisol, however, remains elevated in the body long after the initial stress response passes. Elevated cortisol over the long-term leads to increased blood sugar levels. Consistently high blood sugar levels, along with insulin suppression when the pancreas struggles to keep up with these levels, lead to cells that are starved of glucose. Those cells are crying out for energy, and one way the body regulates this is to send hunger signals to the brain. Cortisol is a hormone designed to help you replenish your body after a stressful event has passed, increasing your appetite and driving you to eat more.

Again, this works nicely in the case of saber-toothed tigers. Once we run away and the coast is clear, it’s a good idea to nourish ourselves after all that fighting or flighting. But this doesn’t really make sense when the tiger is the daily work grind, our partners’ messy habits, or Fox News. Typically we respond to stress today not by fighting or flighting (and expending lots of physical energy doing so); we respond by slumping down on the couch, stewing in our anger or frustration, and getting lost in a sports game or Facebook with a large bag of potato chips or some other soothing snack.

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We are also much more likely to crave sugar and carbohydrates when we are stressed, as cortisol levels are elevated. If you are stressed and your body feels soothed and comforted by eating these foods, then you learn something about how to feel better the next time you are stressed. The behavioral pattern becomes established.

Some studies have even shown that stress and elevated cortisol not only increase weight gain, but they specifically tend to cause weight gain in the abdominal area. This makes sense, given that cortisol has a role in fat cell maturity and triglyceride mobilization. If you are in a high-stress, unstable environment, it might make sense to have more “survival fat” around. In this day and age, though, high-stress is less about survival and more about lives that are just too full or pressured.

And never mind that your day was so stressful that there was no time for lunch. Add a day of spotty eating to the mix and you have a recipe for emotional and compulsive eating in the evening.

Oh, and did I mention that chronic cortisol secretion in the body can constrict blood vessels, increase blood pressure, contribute to gastrointestinal problems, compromise the immune system, and contribute to fertility problems? Yes, all this, and weight gain, too. That’s enough to make me drop my laptop and just say “Ommmm……”

Whether or not your urge to eat in order to manage stress is all about hormones or habit (or a little of both), there are things that you can do to disrupt the cycle of stress, cortisol, and weight gain. Here goes…

Don’t Skip Meals or Go Too Long Without Eating. Starting the day with breakfast and eating regularly throughout the day will keep blood sugar levels steady and lower insulin production. This eventually reduces cortisol levels.

Move your Body.  The endorphins released by physical activity counteract stress and allow a release of some of that fight-or-flight energy. My most anxious, stressed-out clients literally depend on some type of regular movement or exercise practice to help them manage life. Please note that exercising too hard for too long actually is counter-productive! It can raise cortisol-levels and increase stress. Listen to your body and recognize when you are feeling more worn out by your activities. (Injuries, loss of focus after exercise, and needing extra sleep are some indicators.) I often wonder if that’s the force at work when my clients exercise to exhaustion, seem to eat reasonably well, but find that they are actually gaining weight. Find an activity that you enjoy. Twenty minutes of walking or yoga counts. When you exercise an appropriate amount, your body releases biochemicals that counter the negative effects of stress hormones and control insulin and blood sugar levels.

Eat a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet. Stress has been shown to deplete the body of certain vitamins and minerals, particularly B complex, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. These are important nutrients that balance the effects of cortisol on the body. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as foods rich in protein.

Sleep Well. When we don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels rise significantly, which can make us feel more hungry all the time. Good sleep also makes it easier for us to avoid a lot of caffeine to keep us going, another way to keep the cortisol/stress cycle at bay.

Decrease Caffeine and Alcohol. Caffeinated coffee and tea, and even chocolate, can cause cortisol levels to rise, blood sugar to drop, and hunger to increase. Regular drinking of alcoholic beverages can negatively affect blood sugar and insulin levels.

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Practice Relaxation. I say practice because many of us have lost the skill of truly relaxing and need to work on it regularly. We might think that football game is helping us chill out, but the stimulation of the action and the advertising is actually not calming to our nervous systems. True relaxation, in whatever form works for you, produces brain chemicals that counter the effects of stress on the body. Experiment and find out what calms you. Some like putting their attention on the natural flow of their breath, which is always available. Others find meditation, yoga, taking a bath, listening to peaceful music, getting out for a walk in fresh air, or curling up with a good book or a cuddly pet relaxing.

Stress is not inherently bad. It helps us get things done. It creates heroes. But if we feel the effects of stress constantly, especially if we already tend to be a Type A, then it can harm our health and well-being. It weighs us down and keeps us from feeling focused, centered, and present in our lives. As I’ve said so many times before, research shows that weight-loss diets don’t work to sustain a long-term healthy weight. But also consider the impact that stress might be having on your body and your overall health — and try on a little Type B for a change. On the path to self- and body-love and good health, finding healthy ways to manage stress is more important than we may think.