Is Stress Piling on the Pounds?

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Are those high-sugar, high-fat foods calling out to you? Does it take superhuman willpower to resist? This may be because your stress hormones are telling your body to eat calorific foods.

Your stress hormones are part of your body’s survival mechanism, and when they tell you to do something, you do it! If you resist, you are fighting your body’s drive to survive—no wonder you eat the cake, the donut, the chips!

Or maybe you’ve noticed those pounds creeping on around your midriff. You might not like it, but storing belly fat is your body’s way of protecting you while your stress levels are high. One study found people with the most stress burned, on average, 104 calories less a day. This could result in a weight gain of almost eleven pounds a year, even if you don’t eat more.

Tia’s story

Since her early teens, Tia had always carried a few more pounds than she was happy with, but had never been particularly overweight. However, over the last couple of years, her weight had slowly but steadily crept up. She couldn’t understand why. So, she made an appointment with me in the hope I could shed some light on it. She wasn’t eating any differently, but the bulges were all piling on around her belly.

I wanted to find out what was happening in her life. Had anything changed? Yes. It turned out that she’d moved to a new house, only to find herself next door to the ‘neighbors from hell’. Then unexpectedly, her dad, who had been her rock all her life, died.

She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus at work. It got to the stage where she’d leave the house for work an hour early to avoid bumping into the neighbors. At first, she’d ‘comfort eat’ more than normal, but had pretty quickly stopped that. Nothing explained the continued weight gain.

Even though she’d managed to halt the comfort eating her stress hormones had triggered, Tia’s levels of these hormones were still high—therefore, giving her body the message to store fat.

And to store it around her belly. Her weight gain was hardly surprising, as her body had been on stress alert for so long. Tia was shocked to discover that stress can make you gain weight, even if you don’t eat more.

Tia needed to focus on calming her body down. The good news was, she had recently moved again and loved her new house. ‘It feels like a safe haven’, she said, ‘and the neighbors are lovely!’ Now Tia had a good chance of getting her weight back to normal.

How stress affects your weight

In evolutionary terms, our bodies are brilliantly designed to cope with stress. When stressed, we release not only the hormone cortisol but another hormone, adrenaline. These hormones mobilise our bodies for a fight-or-flight response.

To fight or run away from that saber-toothed tiger, our ancestors needed a pretty big energy boost. Our bodies today still work in the same way and give us that boost when under perceived threat—releasing fats and producing sugar (glucose) to fuel the fight-or-flight response.

Once the stress is over, your adrenaline levels return to normal, but your cortisol levels remain high for longer. Remember, high cortisol increases your appetite. In particular, it drives you to eat high-sugar, high-fat foods.

These help your body replenish its fat stores that were depleted with all that fighting or fleeing. Of course, in the days of saber-toothed tigers, these foods were not as readily available and being fresh (sometimes just killed or gathered in the wild) would have come with a host of nutrients. Now, fast forward to the modern day.

What stresses you the most, and how do you respond? Chances are, you do not get into a physical fight or run away! Twenty-first century lives can be very stressful. We often have too much to do and too little time.

A lot of our stress is mental. We get more and more stressed, just sitting at our desk or in the car. Unfortunately, our bodies have not evolved to adapt to the new situation. They still mobilise large amounts of fuel (sugar and fat) to enable a physical response. If you do not use this energy up with a physical response, your body stores this fuel as fat around your belly.

Storing fat abdominally means it is close to your liver. If another stressful situation occurs, your liver can quickly convert the fat back to energy. Even though you have not used up vast amounts of energy, the high cortisol levels, because your body is still on stress alert, increase your appetite. Think about when you were last stressed. What food did you reach for? Chances are, it was not the healthiest choice. In environments where food is unlimited, high cortisol, caused by stress, promotes obesity.

Cortisol is not the only hormone that affects your weight when you are stressed. Insulin and ‘the hunger hormone’, ghrelin, do as well. We already know that high insulin tells your body to store fat; ghrelin increases your appetite and the amount of fat you store. Do you get a sense of ‘reward’ from eating when stressed? Ghrelin appears to be involved in this and may be a factor in food addictions.

The problem with our modern lives is that many of us are chronically stressed, consistently feeling pressured and overwhelmed for prolonged periods. These increasing levels of stress are thought to be a key factor in the current obesity epidemic.

How stressful is your life? It may be that you are so used to the pressure that you don’t realize just how stressed you are. Your body interprets stressors such as lack of sleep and blood sugar imbalances in the same way as psychological stress such as trauma, bereavement or difficult relationships. It is really important to identify the stresses in your life. If you can’t remove them, can you find ways of coping with them that reduce the level of stress you feel?

Is Stress Piling on the Pounds?
Is Stress Piling on the Pounds?

Adrenal fatigue

Your adrenal glands produce your stress hormones. If you are under prolonged stress, they can ultimately become exhausted and you end up in adrenal fatigue. Signs that you may be in adrenal fatigue include being tired for no apparent reason and having difficulty getting up in the morning, even if you go to sleep at a reasonable time.

However, you may perk up in the evening after 6 p.m. You may constantly feel rundown and have difficulty recovering from bugs or other illness. It may also be hard, after being stressed, to get back to an even keel.

Quick questionnaire—Is stress contributing to your weight?

If you answer Yes to three or more questions, then stress may be making it harder for you to lose weight.

  • Do you frequently feel stressed?
  • Are you under a lot of pressure?
  • Have you had any major events in your life over the last year (e.g. marriage, a baby, divorce, house move, change of job, etc)?
  • Do you find it hard to switch off?
  • Is it hard to find time to relax?
  • Do you feel that a lot of people depend on you?
  • Do you feel unsupported or have no one to talk to about your problems?
  • Do you find it hard to be optimistic?
  • Do you sometimes feel unable to cope?
  • Do you want to control things in your life and sometimes feel unable to do so?
  • Do you feel you have too much to do and not enough time?
  • Do you often feel exhausted for no reason?
  • Do you find it hard to get back on an even keel after being stressed?

Key things you have learned in this article

  • Stress hormones increase your appetite, particularly for high-sugar/high-fat foods, and make you store fat around your belly.
  • Your body is designed to deal with short-term stresses that require a physical ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
  • This is very different from the chronic stresses we face in modern-day life. Stress can cause you to gain weight, even if you don’t eat more.

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