The Camera isn't adding 20 pounds. Your Stress levels are.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that stress hormones promote weight gain, would you?
20/20. I'm not talking about vision. I'm talking about how stress can add those last 20 lbs you want to lose. And give you 20 ways to combat it.
I talk about stress in yoga classes, in my signature fermentation class and of course in Change Makers, but most people don't quite understand the connection other than knowing simply that stress can cause weight gain. But what exactly is stress, and how does it keep you from your weight loss goals?
In fact, there are numerous links between stress hormones and weight. So let's dive in! We'll go over the effects of stress and stress hormones, and how they tie into weight loss. Then we’ll end off with two strategies (and several of my best tips) how to manage stress.
Because, as you know, weight loss isn’t just about calories. And, if you're reading this, it's probably because you've been working on losing weight. If you've been on & off the diet train for years, check out Change Makers for deep, sustainable changes.
Now where were we.................
What does 'stress' mean?
When you hear the word “stress” do you think it’s dangerous or unhealthy?
In actual fact, stress itself is a totally normal response to a sense of danger. It can be your friend or foe.
You usually can’t fully control it. It’s your body’s way of protecting you with the “fight or flight” reaction. It can help you survive. (Thanks body!)
Stress can help you to become more focused and have energy when facing an immediate threat. This infrequent short-term stress can help you to run to your kid when they cry or avoid a collision. It can even help you to meet deadlines or get to appointments on time when running late. It’s also what makes some people enjoy roller coasters or dangerous activities (skydiving anyone?) "Adrenaline junkie” anyone?
These are examples of infrequent short-lived stress called “acute” stress, or even “good” stress. And when the situation is over, the stress fades and your body goes back to normal. Ideally, this is how stress should be, infrequent and short-lived. The problem is that in today’s society, many people feel stress often, and for a long time. It’s neither infrequent, nor short-lived. It’s more “constant” or “chronic.”
This is different. Way different. Chronic stress is all day.
This can be from having a major illness, financial worries, a job you hate or life situations that feel out of your control.
And that chronic stress (“bad” stress) you feel all day can affect you in so many ways. It can affect your digestion, moods, and sleep. It also affects your ability to lose weight. Studies show that chronic stress is associated with obesity and metabolic disease. This is especially true for women who are at greater risk for stress-induced emotional eating, and obesity.
When your body senses danger (real or imagined), it immediately reacts with the “fight or flight” reaction to help you literallly “fight” or “flee”. Things essential for survival are prioritized. Things like perception, decision making, and energy for your muscles. The other “rest and digest” functions are put on the backburner until the stress levels start fading.
You probably know how stress affects you. Do you get cravings or indigestion? Do you feel more aches and pains, or get sick? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have more difficulty losing weight? Let’s touch on the physical effects of stress, and then dig into how these effects can keep you from your weight loss goals.
Your Stress Response
Stress-related symptoms are from the physiological effects of stress. Basically, how it affects our nervous system and hormones.
Both of these have profound effects on the body because they’re trying to help you save your (or someone else’s) life.
First up, the nervous system. The “fight or flight” part of your nervous system that is activated by stress is called the “sympathetic” nervous system. This part of your nervous system is usually (ideally) nice and quiet. It’s on “standby” until needed.
On the other hand there is the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system called the “parasympathetic” nervous system.
So, as you can imagine, when you have chronic stress your body isn’t doing much resting or digesting. And both of these are important for optimal health...and weight.
Secondly, let’s talk stress hormones. Have you heard of “cortisol” and “adrenaline?” These hormones are released by your adrenal glands. Adrenal glands look like little walnuts on top of each kidney, and they release a number of hormones, including these stress hormones.
Stress Hormones Domino
When you perceive danger (real or imagined), this starts a hormone cascade that moves from your brain to your adrenal glands. It’s basically like when a bunch of people are in a circle and they’re passing the ball to the person beside them. But with stress hormones.
First, a part in the brain called the “hypothalamus” gets your nervous system ready. It also releases a hormone to trigger the next hormone in the cascade. (Here’s the first pass of the ball.)
Second, when the pituitary gland (also in the brain) gets that hormone, it releases a different hormone to trigger the next hormones in the cascade. (Here’s the second pass of the ball.)
Third, when your adrenal glands (on your kidneys) get that signal, they release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Here’s where things get interesting.
The fancy name for this connection between the brain’s hormones and adrenal hormones is called the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis”, or the HPA Axis.
There is more and more research that shows a link between a dysregulation (improperly functioning) of the HPA Axis, and its association with insulin resistance and abdominal obesity. And, ideally, you want to minimize insulin resistance and abdominal obesity, right?
The stress hormone cortisol affects many things in our bodies. Things like digestion and gut health, inflammation. hunger hormones, insulin release and sensitivity, mood, and sleep. All of these that are affected by stress hormones can also affect your weight.
Stress and our weight
We now see that there are many effects that stress hormones, mainly cortisol, have on your body. Including the link that people with abdominal obesity tend to have higher cortisol levels.
Let’s dive into a big one and see how stress hormones keep you from your weight loss goals.
Poor Digestion and Gut Health
As mentioned already, being in a state of stress puts digestion on the back burner. This is because your body is ready to “fight or flee,” rather than “rest and digest.”
One of the most obvious impacts stress has on digestion is “transit time.” You may notice that stress can either quickly speed up how fast your food moves through you (diarrhea). Or, it may slow it down quite a bit (constipation). Neither one of these is ideal.
New research is also showing the impact that stress has on our friendly gut microbes. We’re just beginning to understand the influence that our gut microbes have on all aspects of health, including weight loss. It may be surprising to know that there seems to be a link between stress and gut microbes (in animals). Seriously!
So how do we improve our digestion and thus, our weight?
Work on the stress. Chew more. Learn to relax. Work on the stress.
There are really two main strategies to go about reducing your stress.
First off, you can reduce the amount of stress put on you by re-balancing some demands. Try:
--Getting more support;
--Delegating to someone else;
--Re-negotiating deadlines that seem unreasonable;
--When working, focus on just one thing at a time (don’t multi-task).
Secondly, since you can’t (and maybe don’t want to) completely remove stress from you life, you want to learn to deal with it better. You can improve your personal stress tolerance by trying to:
--Have some fun and laugh;
--Make time for people (and pets) you love;
--Get more, better-quality sleep;
--Be mindful and live more “in the moment”;
--Have one or two cups of green tea (which has been shown to lower stress levels);
--Do light exercise most days per week (e.g. yoga, swimming, or tai chi);
--Go for a walk outside;
--Spend more time in nature;
--Eat a nutrient-rich diet;
--Meditate or deep breathing;
--Relax every evening (e.g. have a bath or read a book);
--Listen to soothing music;
--Write lists and check things off so your brain isn't going in circles with things to do
--Do a “brain dump” every night before bed where you just make notes of things you’re keeping track of in your head so you can relax more;
--Treat yourself to a massage, nice meal, or pedicure. Whatever 'self care' looks like to you: do more of that.
Stress has major effects that can keep you from your weight loss goals. It affects your digestion and gut health. , inflammation and the immune system. Stress can cause cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating.” It can promote fat storage around the waist with its effect on insulin sensitivity. Stress can be mood-busting and demotivating, not to mention how it worsens sleep. As in Holistic Nutrition, we have to look at the whole picture, so when working with clients I am going to ask questions that aren't seemingly connected to your weight: now you'll know why. Our stress and sleep and cravings all have to do with our weight.
All of these effects can keep you from your weight loss goals. You'll benefit from trying some of the many ways to deal with stress, but also try to reduce some of the causes of stress in your life.
Your mind and body will thank you!
Most of us know what healthy living should look like, but we aren't doing it! Change Makers' is a long-term nutrition program for women who are struggling to stick with their plans and need support and motivation to continue with eating and stress reduction.It's aptly titled, because it really is changing lives. Read about it here!
Brzozowski B, Mazur-Bialy A, Pajdo R, Kwiecien S, Bilski J, Zwolinska-Wcislo M, Mach T, Brzozowski T. Mechanisms by which Stress Affects the Experimental and Clinical Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Role of Brain-Gut Axis. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2016;14(8):892-900.
Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Apr;25(4):713-720. doi: 10.1002/oby.21790.
Chen WQ, Zhao XL, Hou Y, Li ST, Hong Y, Wang DL, & Cheng YY. Protective effects of green tea polyphenols on cognitive impairments induced by psychological stress in rats. Behav Brain Res. 2009 Aug 24;202(1):71-6.
Clarke G, Stilling RM, Kennedy PJ, Stanton C, Cryan JF, & Dinan TG. Minireview: Gut microbiota: the neglected endocrine organ. Mol Endocrinol. 2014 Aug;28(8):1221-38. doi: 10.1210/me.2014-1108.
Fernandez-Rodriguez E, Stewart PM & Cooper MS. The pituitary–adrenal axis and body composition. Pituitary 12 (2009):105–115 DOI 10.1007/s11102-008-0098-2
Incollingo Rodriguez AC, Epel ES, White ML, Standen EC, Seckl JR & Tomiyama AJ. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation and cortisol activity in obesity: A systematic review. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015 Dec;62:301-18. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.08.014.
Kolbe, I., Dumbell, R. & Oster, H. (2015). Circadian Clocks and the Interaction between Stress Axis and Adipose Function. Int J Endocrinol. 2015:693204. doi: 10.1155/2015/693204.
Lucassen EA, Cizza G. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, Obesity, and Chronic Stress Exposure: Sleep and the HPA Axis in Obesity. Curr Obes Rep. 2012 Dec;1(4):208-215.
Pasquali R, Vicennati V, Cacciari M & Pagotto U. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity in obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Annual NY Academic Science, 1083, 2006;111–128. doi: 10.1196/annals.1367.009