In a busy world, with so much work and responsibility, stress is inevitable. The brain functions differently when under stress.
According to researchers, stress is an important risk factor for weight gain. This means that the effects of stress go beyond anxiety and depression to increase in appetite and stress-induced weight gain. However, the good news is that, there are ways, by which we can break this cycle, reduce the stress and avoid weight gain.
Effects of Cortisol – the stress hormone
Cortisol is secreted in higher levels when we are faced with stress. Cortisol is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. These include the following:
- A quick burst of energy
- Heightened memory
- Lower sensitivity to pain
- Maintained homeostasis in body
Some of the consequences of high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods are obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart diseases, and sleep disturbances among many others. In contrast, low levels of cortisol occurring due to chronic fatigue results in lack of stamina, emotional paralysis, to name a few.
How is it responsible for weight gain?
Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose. But those cells are crying out for energy, and one way to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain. This can lead to overeating. And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat.
Another connection is cortisol’s effect on appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. Cortisol may directly influence appetite and cravings by binding to hypothalamus receptors in the brain. Cortisol also indirectly influences appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite.
Under stress, eating becomes an activity that is both easy to do and it is comforting at the same time. Our urge to eat high-carbohydrate food (i.e. sugary or starchy foods) is driven by cortisol. Eating in response to stress thus becomes a behavioural habit. Our sedentary lifestyle does not help in working off any of the extra energy acquired from all that extra food supply. The unfortunate results of our stressful lives therefore include belly fat, expanded waistline and obesity!
How to avoid weight gain during stress?
When you’re under stress, you may find it harder to eat healthy. Also, during times of particularly high stress, you may eat in an attempt to fulfill emotional needs — sometimes called stress eating or emotional eating. And you may be especially likely to eat high-calorie foods during times of stress, even when you’re not hungry.
To prevent weight gain during stress and reduce the risk of obesity, get a handle on your stress. When you feel less stressed and more in control of your life, you may find it easier to stick to healthy eating and exercise habits.
Try these stress management techniques to combat stress-related weight gain:
- Recognize the warning signs of stress, such as anxiety, irritability and muscle tension.
- Before eating, ask yourself why you’re eating — are you truly hungry or do you feel stressed or anxious?
- If you’re tempted to eat when you’re not hungry, find a distraction.
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast.
- Identify comfort foods and keep them out of your home or office.
- Keep a record of your behavior and eating habits so that you can look for patterns and connections — and then figure out how to overcome them.
- Learn problem-solving skills so that you can anticipate challenges and cope with setbacks.
- Practice relaxation skills, such as yoga, stretching, massage, deep breathing or meditation.
- Engage in regular physical activity or exercise.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Get encouragement from supportive friends and family.
If you try stress management techniques on your own but they don’t seem to be working, consider seeking professional help through psychotherapy or counseling.
Exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones, and instead stimulates the production of endorphins (or chemicals in the brain that primarily functions as mood up-lifters). Simple breathing exercises and meditation too are time-honoured ways to reduce stress.
Raising the physical activity and building exercise into our day to combat stress is essential if we want to live a healthy and fulfilling life into old age. Keeping in mind that stress happens as a part of life and learning the right way to respond to stress is crucial.