The Impact of Stress on Weight and the Body

For most of us, stress is a fact of life, and as a result, at one time or another, many of us will experience some of the many nasty symptoms including:

  • Food cravings
  • Increased abdominal fat
  • Insulin resistance
  • High blood sugar
  • Mood swings
  • Increase anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Irritability
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Low immune functioning
  • Increased frequency of colds and infections
  • High blood pressure
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Depression
  • Premature aging
  • Muscle and bone loss
  • Hair loss
  • Skin conditions 

Looking over this list, we can see a lot of these symptoms would play a big role in hindering weight loss, with chronic high stress now shown to prevent individuals from losing weight or even see their weight increase even with diet and exercise management.

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How Is That Possible?

When you have a stressful day, your brain causes a hormonal response to the stress.

Hormones

You get a burst of adrenaline which causes a spike in the heart rate and blood pressure, which in the past was useful to feed out ability to fight or flee. Unfortunately, frequent bursts of adrenaline increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as causing you get a surge of cortisol. The elevated cortisol levels stimulate the release of glucose in your blood to prepare for the fight or flight response, which in modern times doesn’t come. This excess sugar is converted into and stored as fat, particularly in the abdominal area. Whilst this is all happening, the body continues to send the signal to replenish the energy which it would have used whilst fighting of fleeing.

Cravings

The way humans replenish energy is through food, so the cortisol send your body hunger signals. The issue is that, the energy your body is wanting to replace hasn’t been used. And as long as the stress continues, your body keeps pumping out more cortisol making it harder and harder to control the hunger signals.

These signals lead to us crave calorically dense foods, such as those full of sugar and fat. Unfortunately, whilst these foods stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension, the soothing effect can be high addictive, causing your body to crave these foods every time you become stressed.

Decrease Muscle Mass

On top of the calorically dense food cravings, the ongoing increased levels of cortisol see the production of testosterone slow down. Over time, this decrease can cause a decrease in muscle mass. As muscle burns calories to simply exist, the decrease in muscle mass decreases your body’s need to burn calories.

Metabolism

High cortisol levels switch your body from a normal fat-burning to a fat-storing mode, especially in regards to visceral fat. Visceral fat is known as the dangerous fat as it surrounds vital organs, releases fatty acids into your blood, and raises cholesterol and insulin levels. It is this type of fat which has become known for its negative effects on stroke, thyroid function, metabolic rates, heart disease and diabetes.

A March 2006 article in the British Medical Journal stated that employees with chronic work stress have more than double the odds of metabolic syndrome than those without work stress.

Metabolic Syndrome is a collection of conditions including obesity, high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol and insulin resistance that often occur together and increase the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

Adrenal Fatigue

The continuous release of cortisol over a long period of time is also known to lead to adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue and high cortisol levels not only make it very easy to put on a lot of body fat, but make losing it almost impossible. In addition to making it difficult to lose fat, the ongoing high cortisol levels impair neuron activity dramatically affecting short-term memory, clarity of mind, judgment and the ability to learn, with much of the damage believed to be irreversible.

Immune System

To top it all off, chronic stress has also been shown to suppress the immune system, opening the door to infections including colds, flus and other energy draining, frustrating illnesses.

All of these effects of stress really add up, often leading to an increase in calorie consumption and decrease in physical activity, which in turn will likely lead to weight gain.

In 2007, a study investigated the individual differences in the effects of stress on BMI. [study]

71 healthy women who voluntarily enrolled in a stressful university-based nurse practitioner program were examined at the beginning of the academic semester and 12 weeks later during the participants’ examination period.

Whilst the women all started at a normal weight for their age, by the examination period, 40 had gained weight (average 2.5kg), 19 lost weight (average 1.1kg), and 12 had stable weight.

BMI, cortisol levels, binging behavior, depression and anxiety had all increased significantly, whilst dietary restraint decreased significantly.

By comparing the results, the study was able to show:

  • An increase in daily cortisol secretion significantly predicted change in BMI through weakened dietary retrait (eg. increased daily caloric intake and/or reduction in nutritional quality), reduction in mastery (the ability of thoughts and behaviors to minimise the effects of stress, i.e., the degree to which one experiences control over one’s life) and weight concern. 
  • Mastery saw the single most significant improvement the management of BMI.

 

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How Can We Prevent Stress From Getting The Better Of Us?

Prevention

Freeing our lives completely from stress is unlikely to occur, but there are plenty of things we can do daily to eliminate unwelcome tension.

Identify Stress Triggers

By finding what causes stress in your life, it becomes easier to gain clarity on how to plan for and deal with these triggers before they arise.

Breathe Deeply

One of the simplest and most effective ways to lower stress levels is to breathe. Due to our demanding schedules, we often go about our days taking our breath for granted. Due to this, shallow breathing is a common consequence of stress.

By taking a few moments to breathe deeply into our abdomen, we can slow our heart rate and blood pressure, two common stress responses.

Meditate

Over the past few years, meditation has become a big buzz word in the health and wellness industry… and there’s a good reason for it. There’s now a lot of research which suggests that daily meditation may alter the brain’s neural pathways, making us more resilient to stress. Even just a few minutes of practice per day is enough to help ease anxiety and stress.

There’s an app for that…
My 2 favourites are: Insight Timer and Calm
Insight Timer allows you to filter meditations for preferences including time (they even have 1 minute meditations) whilst Calm offers guided journeys with daily meditations on specific themes.

 

Be Present

With a never ending list of competing priorities on the to-do list, it can all become a bit overwhelming. By slowing down, and taking 5 minutes to focus on the present moment, or being mindful, rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past, individual’s can improve their disposition toward remaining in the present moment.

This present-moment awareness increases stress resilience and effective coping which has been linked to numerous health benefits including lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety and depression, improved mood, and a sense of improved well-being.

2016 study by a team of Australian researchers examined the effects of present moment-awareness in a sample of 143, well-educated university students and staff who were part of an online mindfulness training course. [study]

The study focused on:

  • People’s perceived competence in dealing with a stressful situation (coping self-efficacy)
  • People’s reliance on core values when responding to stressful situations
  • People’s avoidance of stressful feelings.


The study showed that:

  • Those with greater present-moment awareness were more likely to respond to stress with strategies that lead to greater health and well-being.
  • Being able to be present in the moment when stressed was directly linked to greater perceived ability to handle that stress and more reliance on core values to navigate the stressful situation.
  • The positive effects of  greater present-moment awareness was seen both on the same day, and in response to a different stressor the next day, linking present-moment awareness practice to long-term stress reduction. 

Reach Out

According to a study, if you’re stressed about something in life, talking about it with someone who has either been there or is going through it with you can bring about significant relief from the associated stress.[study]

So reach out to your social network, talk to others, preferably face-to-face or even over the phone, and reap the benefits of connecting with others.

 

Schedule Relaxation

Whether it’s treating yourself to a massage, or simply place a warm heat pack around your neck and shoulders for 10 minutes, setting some time aside for yourself to take a time-out can be a powerful way to decompress and destress from the many demands of the modern world.

 

Laugh

Set some time aside to indulge in your favourite funny, sitcom, chat with a great friend or see some stand-up comedy. Laughter has been shown to lower cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, and boosts endorphins, which help improve mood and lower stress.


Put On Your Favourite Track

Our demanding schedules can make it hard to find the time to ‘destress’ in many of the commonly accepted ways, such as meditation, yoga, massage, hot baths etc. But something you can slip into your daily life without too much disruption is listening to music.

Research shows that listening to soothing music can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety, whilst listening to upbeat music that makes you want to sing at the top of your lungs is a wonderful way to blow off stream.

So whether it’s in the shower, during your car ride between work and home, or popping in your headphones for a couple minutes as you feel stress arise, it can be extremely beneficial to have a few of your favourite songs ready to go for whenever you want to tap into their power.

 

Move Your Body

As a Personal Trainer, it would be hard for me not to mention all the amazing stress reducing benefits physical activity has on the body. But what you may not expect me to say is that, when it comes to reducing stress with exercise, not all physical activity may be as suitable for everyone.

Whilst for some high-intensity workouts can be a great way to blow off steam, they can in-fact raise the level of cortisol in the body. So unless you’re super passionate about your HIIT, a routine exercise plan, be it walking, swimming, dancing, yoga or strength training, will see your brain release endorphins, decreasing the risk of depression and assisting you in getting a better night’s sleep, which is a key factor in reducing cortisol release and weight gain.

So find something you like and get moving, and if you don’t know what you life, even better. Rope a friend along and try a range of activities such as rock-climbing, ice-skating, stand-up paddleboarding and anything else you can think of. Not only will you get the stress reducing benefits of moving, but you’ll also get the added benefit of connecting with a friend and most likely laughing throughout the journey.

 

Gratitude

This one has become a big buzz word in the health and wellness industry at the moment and for good reason.

Keeping a gratitude journal can help you remember all the positive things in your life, something that can be hard to see and recall when stressed.

Writing down things we’re grateful for at the end of the day is an effective way to cancel out negative thoughts and worries.

By writing down what you’re grateful for, you’ll not only shift your mindset, but allow yourself to savor good experiences and celebrate accomplishments.

Best of all,  when you find yourself feeling stressed, you have a great go-to you can spend a few minutes reflecting on and reminding yourself what really matters to you.

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As we can see, stress can be physically and emotionally draining. The fatigue can cause inactivity, the cortisol can cause fat to build up around the midsection, and the higher insulin levels as your blood sugar drops to can cause cravings for sugary, fatty, unhealthy foods… the ultimate trifecta when you’re trying to lose weight.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. With so many ways of trying to manage the stress in our lives, by implementing even just one of the above mentioned tools which resonate with you the most, you’ll become more in control of your stress levels and therefore empowering you to begin to mitigate the effects stress can have on your weight and body.

For more information on reducing stress or how I can work with you to create more balance in your life, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or contact me directly on 0414 392 746 or email eva@konquerfitness.com.au

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