We all experience stress in our lives in one form or another, sometimes we aren’t’ even aware that we are stressed, but our bodies certainly are. We often think that stress would cause us to lose weight, and yes, sometimes that is true, but it can most definitely result in weight gain.
I think the most widely recognised reason for weight gain during a stressful time is the fact that you may be more likely to make bad food choices; going for things with higher sugar and fat content as a means of comfort. This is something that, at least to some extent, is controllable by being more conscious of what you are eating.
When it comes to the biological effects of stress on our bodies, it can be much harder to control weight gain. Part of the stress response is for our bodies to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases the levels of a hormone called ADH (antidiuretic hormone) in your body. This hormone controls your water levels by sending signals to your kidneys, telling them how much water to release back into your body. So having higher levels of cortisol and therefore ADH means you will be more likely to retain water which will be affecting what you see on the scales. Unfortunately, ladies, studies have shown that women are more susceptible to psychological stress and therefore exhibit higher levels of cortisol after a stressful experience than men.
Another hit for the ladies out there, studies have shown that stress can cause a slowing of metabolism in women. When experiencing stress, women were shown to burn fewer calories than those that had experienced no or little stress, enough to give rise to around 11lb per year in extra weight! These women were also showing higher levels of insulin which plays a part in converting food energy into fat for storage. They also exhibited less fat oxidation which is the breakdown of large fat molecules into smaller ones that can be used to fuel our bodies, anything we don’t use is stored.
When you are stressed, you may find it harder to sleep at night. Sleep deprivation can cause your metabolism to slow down and therefore, you will be burning fewer calories and potentially storing them as fat.
So how do we try to combat this? Well firstly, as mentioned above, we need to be more aware of what we are eating and why we are eating it. Please don’t deny yourself all the foods you’re craving for comfort, but make sure that you are moderating them.
Eating lean meats, fibrous vegetables and healthy fats are useful for those with high cortisol levels. This is because cortisol can negatively affect carbohydrate metabolism, so limiting your intake of carbs, alcohol and sugar can help keep the weight gain under control. The increase of lean protein and fibrous vegetables in your diet will also help you stay fuller for longer.
If you consume a lot of caffeine, this can stress out your adrenal gland, which is responsible for releasing cortisol into your body, so limiting this daily could help reduce your biological stress levels.
Finding something that helps you relax, such as meditation, herbal remedies or reading can be a great help in reducing stress and aiding sleep.
And lastly, something that will not be for the faint-hearted… cold water immersion! Modern-day, 1st world humans are more likely to get stressed about things that are not vital to survival; this could be because we no longer have the threat of predation. So to ‘reset’ our bodies’ reaction to stress, you need something that induces a high-stress response; immersing yourself in below 15C water will produce this. So as your body learns to cope with this high-stress situation, it will mean that you will react less to lesser stresses and increase your ability to calm quicker.
So whichever way you find best to control your stress, keep it up in order to find a healthy mind and body balance.