Is Stress Making You Fat and Sick?

On the face of it, the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year.  But for many it is also a very stressful time. Between deadlines at work, event planning, family dynamics and shopping for gifts, it all adds up to a perfect storm, and if we are honest, it is a storm that has been brewing for a while.  So how do you manage it?

I’d like to explain first about the effects of stress on the body and then some strategies that you can take to alleviate it.

Stress manifests in our bodies in many ways. A body under prolonged stress is more susceptible to disease.

Chronic stress is one of the major contributors to weight loss resistance.  Quite often, when you think about the things you need to do to lose weight and keep it off you think about things like cutting down on snacking, drinking, and desserts and signing back up to the gym. While eating right and exercise are important pieces to transforming your body, they are not the only things you need to pay attention to. Even if you are consistently exercising and diligently watching every bite, your body will prefer to hoard fat, especially in the midsection, if you’re not managing your stress levels well.

There are 4 main sources of most stress.

  1. Environmental – The environment assaults your senses with extreme weather, pollens, pollutants noise, traffic, insects, dust, and wind.

  2. Social – Social stress includes situations like preparing for a job interview, having difficult discussions, demands for your time and attention, and financial problems.

  3. Physiological -  Aging, illness, injuries, lack of sleep, aches, pains, muscle soreness, menopause, growth spurts and recovering from surgeries are physiological stressors you might endure.

  4. Thoughts - Your own thoughts are perhaps the biggest source of stress there is. The more negative thoughts you have, the more stress you inflict on yourself. It’s not the circumstances you are in that is creating the stress; it’s your thoughts about your circumstances. For example, getting stuck in the rain without an umbrella can make one person stressed, but another person might just laugh it off.

Life is a constant juggle, causing chronic stress.

Life is a constant juggle, causing chronic stress.

There are two types of stress: acute and chronic.

  1. Acute stress - Short-Term Stress. It ranges from small annoyances like waiting in a long line to bigger stressors like being in a car accident. The common thread with events that cause acute stress is that they definitely have an end to them. Stress can be positive. Acute stress from doing something new or a bit outside your comfort zone but that has an upside for you such as accepting a new job, making an investment, asking for a favor, etc.

  2. Chronic stress - Lasts Longer / More Pervasive. Sometimes chronic stress has no end in sight. It’s things like financial pressures, a prolonged illness, taking care of an elderly parent, or a long commute to and from work. Chronic stress is dangerous if it is not addressed. Situations that cause acute stress can fester and turn into chronic stress over time. You have to be careful to prevent this from happening. You also have to arm yourself with the tools and strategies that are the most effective for you to cope with stress when you find yourself in a situation that is creating stress for you but there isn’t an end in sight. It’s even more important to learn how to control your reactions to those situations so you can feel calm and centered and not at the mercy of those situations or circumstances.

There are 2 ways chronic stress make us gain weight:

  1. A lot of us turn to food when we are stressed out. Not just food, but comfort foods: sweet and sugary desserts, doughy pastries, chips, ice cream, and even alcohol. We turn to these things because they temporarily help us feel better. Most of the foods we crave are simple carbs, made from white flour, and convert quickly to glucose in our bodies. Serotonin and dopamine may also increase, helping us to feel good in the short-term.

  2. When we are under a great deal of non-stop stress, our bodies produce cortisol which blocks weight loss and promotes an increase in belly fat. Another hormone called glucocorticoids are produced in abundance. This hormone causes some of your cells to morph into fat cells. When you create new fat cells it can be even harder to lose fat in the future.

When you’re overwhelmed with worry or unable to rest your body completely, your body tends to want to “protect” its’ fat stores. Fat is simply stored energy. Your body thinks it’s in danger and wants to conserve energy, not burn it away.

Restrictive diets and over-exercising can create stress in the body. That’s why people who are working out a lot but not eating enough are unable to lose weight. They have set the alert system off in their bodies, telling their brain to stop burning fat and start hoarding it due to the impending “famine” or “crisis” it perceives.


Stress Relief Strategies:

  1. Breathing Exercises: Breathing exercises are great to help you immediately restore a sense of calm and center yourself in times of stress. When we are stressed when tend to take shallow breaths. Breathing helps activate our natural relaxation response.

  2. Guided Meditation:  Guided meditations have become increasingly popular as mindfulness and the need to slow down has become more and more apparent. It used to be that meditating was something you did in silence, but listening to a guided meditation can be extremely effective in helping your mind focus in and block out other distractions. There are guided meditations on so many different topics – confidence, self-worth, love, money, caring for others, forgiveness, and others. You can find them on YouTube or download one of many apps.

  3. Stress Relieving Foods: There are several studies linking food and mood. Some studies show that low vitamin D levels can lead to depression.  Other studies show that drinking soft drinks can also lead to depression.  We can overeat when we are depressed as well as when we are happy and celebrating.  When our bodies first experience stress, the fight or flight response kicks in. Digestion slows down as our bodies prepare for action. Blood flows out of the stomach and into our heart and extremities in case we have to run or fight. One of the biggest sources of stress is our own thoughts. When you perceive a threat, whether it’s real or imagined, you will experience the stress response. As you can imagine, during your workday when you find out a deadline has been moved up, or a file you were working on for weeks has been erased, you might experience some disruption to your digestion, maybe cramps, no appetite, or feeling like there’s a pit in your stomach. Often times people who experience these symptoms don’t like to eat. For some, stress reduces their appetite and for others, stress leads to stimulation of the appetite, mainly in an effort to boost serotonin and feel good.

Foods to help you relieve stress

DARK CHOCOLATE – Make sure you get real cacao, not processed cocoa! Real cacao is a natural mood booster!

BANANAS – Bananas are rich in potassium, which helps lower your risk of stroke. They also contain dopamine, a natural reward chemical that improves your mood. They’re packed with B vitamins, including B6, which helps to soothe your nervous system, and magnesium, another nutrient associated with positive mood. Be careful to limit them if you have insulin/leptin resistance.

TURMERIC – Turmeric contains the powerful curcumin, which blocks the enzyme the causes inflammation. It also destroys free radicals that threaten your organs, including your heart. Sprinkle some turmeric in your sauces, on vegetable, or mixed in with virtually any recipe. Blocking inflammation helps improve your memory, mood, digestion, and joint pain.

BERRIES: Berries are abundant in antioxidants which help promote dopamine levels, a chemical critical to your mood. The darker, the better! Hawthorn berries may help to reduce anxiety and stress.

PROTEIN: Eating protein rich foods such as lean meats, fish, dairy, and nuts/seeds, contributes to keeping blood sugar levels stable. This helps reduce cravings, maintain energy levels and improve your mood.

OMEGA 3 FATS: Taking an omega-3 supplement showed a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety. Wild caught salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fats (and protein), which can help boost your mood.

Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And response is something we can choose.
— - Maureen Killoran