Monthly Archives: October 2017

CHRONIC STRESS & WEIGHT GAIN — Are They Related?

 

If I were to ask for advice on how to either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight what tips do you think would come my way? How would you answer? I’m thinking the suggestions would go something like this:

  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks
  • Eat good, healthy food
  • Don’t skip breakfast
  • Exercise
  • Make healthy choices when eating out
  • Learn portion size
  • Limit alcohol intake

Did I guess any of your suggestions? I’m going to assume so. In fact I’ve written those same tips in several of my blogs—because it IS good advice! But sometimes even though an individual is trying to live within these good guidelines they still struggle with their weight.

So, what could be the problem then you ask? Well, what if I told you the answer might be stress? Yup! Stress! Or maybe I should say chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. Being stressed not only plays havoc with our emotions but can also have a dramatic effect on our body physically as well. Cortisol increases actually cause cravings for carbohydrates which can lead to consuming unnecessary calories. Another effect is the storage of excess calories, which most often shows up as fat in the abdominal area and thighs. (Isn’t that great?) NOT!

Let me explain somewhat on how this happens. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response. However, cortisol is much more than just a hormone released during stress. This hormone affects many different functions of the body. It is a life sustaining adrenal hormone that is absolutely necessary to homeostasis. Homeostasis is a process that maintains the stability of the human body’s internal environment during changes in external conditions.

For example, if you were to fall into very cold water (a change in external environment), your heart would beat more rapidly than usual (a change in internal environment) and the rate of your breathing would increase above normal. This would be an automatic response to being exposed to the cold water. After you scrambled out of the water and your body warmed back up, your heart rate and breathing would return to normal.

Another example is if you suddenly found yourself in a dangerous situation. Your body would experience an adrenaline surge that would give rise to the extra energy you need to escape from the danger. This “fight or flight” response is your body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to “fight” or “flee” from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.

These examples I just gave would be considered a “good stress.” The kind of stress that motivates you to get something done or overcome an obstacle. You generally experience this kind of stress in short bouts. Once the threat is over your hormone levels go back to normal and you move on. Our ancestors more than likely dealt with that kind of stress mostly. It helped them to survive. The “fight” or “flight” reaction came in pretty handy when faced with the threat of being eaten by a lion, tiger or bear!

Now I don’t know about you but I haven’t run across any lions, tigers or bears…well, that is unless I was at the zoo. And I’m going to guess that neither have you. Most of the stresses we deal with today are more psychological than physical such as rush hour traffic, having an argument with our boss or spouse, living paycheck-to-paycheck, living a harried lifestyle, being stuck in a job we hate, etc. While these situations aren’t life threatening, our body reacts to them as a threat and activates the fight or flight system.

While it is a natural and vital response for our body to secrete cortisol in response to stress, it is also very important that bodily functions and cortisol levels return to normal following a stressful event. Here in lies the problem—we live in a high-stress culture. Sometimes the stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal. Hence, our bodies being exposed to higher and more prolonged levels of circulating cortisol. Thereby setting our bodies up to hold onto those excess calories and leading to weight gain amongst other impairments.

Ideally, you want your levels to be neither consistently high or low, but rather fluctuate in a fairly rhythmic and balanced manner. You can actually learn to relax your body with a few stress management techniques. It’s also beneficial to make lifestyle changes to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. Therefore, I would like to offer some suggestions that might help you in aiding your body and mind to relax which will in turn help you to maintain healthy cortisol levels:

Change your external environment (your “reality”) - Evaluate your environment. Are you in a toxic, noisy or hostile environment? Sometimes this can’t be changed but if you are able and need to, DO IT! Whether it be physically or emotionally it is important to surround yourself with a healthy environment. This might mean moving, looking for a different job, getting out of hurtful relationships or any other action that helps to provide a safer environment.
Change the perceptions of your reality - Seek out techniques to help you view and respond to the events in your life in a healthy and constructive way. This includes your mental perspectives, attitudes, beliefs, and emotional reactions to situations in your life.
Physical exercise (you knew this was going to be in here right)? - When you exercise, you metabolize the excessive stress hormones which helps to restore your mind and body to a more calmer and relaxed state.
Give your brain a rest - Sometimes that toxic, noisy, and hostile environment can be located right between your ears—your brain! Do your thoughts race around like an endless, restless stream of incomplete thoughts, anxieties and negative self-talk? While we can’t exactly shut our brain off we can redirect the direction of where our mind wants to take us. This leads us to the next suggestion.
Relaxation - A good way to settle your brain down into a more quiet state of mind is to use relaxation techniques. Techniques such as yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage, listening to calming music or learning to meditate.

Hopefully you can see that changing how your body responds to stress can make all the difference when you need to lose those extra pounds. I hope you have found this blog enlightening. If you would like some assistance in learning how to handle stress in a more healthy way I invite you to call me at (616) 516-1570 or click on the “contact” tab to set up an appointment.