Anyone who has ever struggled with managing their weight is probably aware of a relationship between stress and weight – namely, we tend to eat when stressed (to put it mildly). But there is a lot more to the stress-weight connection than just that. Bottom line: chronic stress creates a chemistry in your body that de-regulates your appetite, promotes fat storage, and decreases metabolic activity (among other things). In other words, chronic stress leads to weight gain.
In this post, I first explore our stress chemistry, then turn to the more practical part – identifying what stresses us and how what we can do about it.
Your body’s autonomic nervous system includes two subsystems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Your sympathetic subsystem, also known as your stress response or “fight or flight” response, is designed to help you react and move quickly in response to a perceived threat. Your parasympathetic subsystem, also known as relaxation or “rest and digest” response, allows the body to recover, digest, build, and heal. You shift between these two systems all the time, like turning the knob on a dial, so that at any one time, one system is dominant to a certain degree. And your body chemistry changes to support the requirements of the dominant system.
When the sympathetic (stress) system is dominant, these are just some of the changes that occur in your body:
- Increased production of cortisol (associated with weight gain, abdominal obesity, inability to lose weight or build muscle)
- Increased production of insulin (possibly leading to insulin resistance or pre-diabetes)
- Decreased thyroid hormone (leading to a decrease in base metabolic activity)
- Reduced gastro-intestinal motility (the movement of your digestive tract)
- Decreased blood flow to the gut (4 times less)
- Decreased enzymatic output in the gut (20,000 times less!)
- Reduced absorption of nutrients
- Increased excretion of nutrients, particularly minerals and water soluble vitamins
- Die-off of healthy gut bacteria
Bottom line, when you are under stress, you burn fewer calories, you do not properly digest your food, nutrient absorption is inhibited, and your body favors fat storage over fat burning and muscle building. In fact:
You can eat the healthiest food in the world,
but if you do so under constant stress,
you can become malnourished!
In other words, it’s not “you are what you eat” but “you are what you absorb”.
And as if this weren’t enough, chronic stress also contributes to inflammation, increased risk of osteoporosis, impaired kidney function, and other conditions!
So if the stress response causes so many problems, why do we have it? Your stress response is actually a beautiful, powerful mechanism designed to heighten your senses and responses for a couple potentially critical minutes. It is designed to help you in the short term. The problem is that in today’s society, many of us are constantly operating in some degree of stress chemistry. Our stress dial is constantly turned towards the “danger” zone. Under these conditions, you will have a hard time losing weight (if that is your goal) and your health risks for various conditions will increase.
Now that we have been stressed out about all the bad things that stress does to us, let’s see what we can do about it. The first step is to identify what stresses you.
What stresses you?
First, let’s define stress.
Stress is any real or imagined threat
and the body’s response to it
Any real or imagined threat… Some stress is real, but a lot is of our own doing. We stress about what other people are thinking, about things that we have no control over, and more. These self-chosen stresses are fertile ground to work, but eliminating them is not always easy. While we can’t fully control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. We need to learn to react differently, where possible.
To find out what stresses you, take some time to sit down and create a stress inventory: write down all the persons, places, things, situations, thoughts, beliefs, fears that stress you. Some stresses you might be able to identify right away (work, relationships, finances) but others are not so obvious. This is where working with a coach can be of a big help. A coach can help you identify stresses like
- negative self talk (“I’m so fat” “I hate my body” “I’ll never be good enough” “No one could ever love me if I look like this”)
- Fears (“what if I get sick” “what if I never lose this weight”)
- Holding on to anger, guilt, frustration, undigested life experiences
Take some time to review what you have compiled and rank them from most charged to least. You want to start working with the biggest stresses first. Also ask yourself – how many in my list are self-chosen?
Now that you have your stress inventory, it’s time to start the real work…
How do you combat manage stress?
First, please don’t try to “combat stress”. That in itself sounds stressful, right?
There are several tactics for managing stress:
- Change how you react (avoid the stress)
- Move out of stress into relaxation (shorten the duration of a stress event)
- Incorporate regular relaxing self-care practices (cultivate a general sense of peace and relaxation)
1. Change how you react
I like to call this “mental gymnastics”. Others call it reframing. The idea is to practice reacting in a different way to a stressor. Remember, you can control how you react to a situation. With practice, your new reaction can become automatic.
Here are a couple examples:
- Instead of thinking “I only have 5 minutes for lunch so I better rush through it, and while I’m eating let me plan the afternoon agenda”, try thinking “I’m so grateful to have these 5 minutes to just sit and relax and enjoy my lunch.”
- Instead of thinking “Oh that person just cut me off I am going to tail him and honk at him and get angry”, try “Boy, it must be really awful to feel the need to drive so aggressively and dangerously. I am grateful that I do not feel that way”.
2. Move into relaxation
Stress is inevitable. When you become aware that you are feeling stress, try to move yourself into a relaxation response as soon as you can. Here are a couple techniques to try.
- Deep breathing – never underestimate the power of your breath to move you into relaxation. If you can breathe deeply, then you are not in an emergency situation (stressed breathing is rapid and shallow). Practice taking 3-5 really deep breaths – feel your belly expand as the air goes in, and feel it contract as the air goes out – and see if you feel different. The great thing about using breathing to relax is that you can do it anywhere, and it doesn’t take much time.
- Feeling positive emotions like gratitude, love, trust. Think of someone or something you love unconditionally, or something you are grateful for, and feel yourself relax.
3. Incorporate regular relaxing self-care practices
Activities like physical, pleasurable exercise, meditation, yoga, tai chi, etc. are well known to help relieve stress.
Personally, I practice meditation and yoga regularly and I have noticed a significant change in my overall well-being. Meditation is really easy to do. You just sit quietly and breathe. It’s ok for thoughts to come and go – that is natural – just observe them as pass through your mind and keep breathing.
If you have never meditated before, here are a couple ways to get started.
- Set yourself a timer on a phone, find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, and just breathe. Monitor your breath as it goes in and out – you can count in your head as you inhale and exhale. Start with 5 minutes. When you are ready, increase the time to 10 minutes, or more.
- Check out the “Headspace” app. It includes 10 free brief guided meditations that are great for beginners.
- You can also explore lots of guided meditation videos on YouTube.
Another of my favorite de-stressing activities is to lay in my hammock outside and read a good book. I was pleasantly surprised recently to learn that even the fictional character ‘Jack Reacher’ knows that stress inhibits digestion – if you want to be fully nourished, you need to eat while you are relaxed, well before you go into what will be a known stressful situation:
“We ate at five-thirty, because we wanted to be full of energy and good nutrition three and more hours later, and human digestion gets slower with stress, not faster.” Child, Lee (2014): Personal (A Jack Reacher Novel).
Now you know too. And a lot more. If you got this far, congratulations. I know this post is a long one. But it is such a rich topic!
Use the comments to share your thoughts. What do you do to relieve stress? What are you willing to commit to try?
At Mind Body Nutrition Coaching, we help clients identify and alleviate stressors that contribute to conditions such as weight challenges, binge eating, digestive issues, fatigue, mood, and more. If you are interested in our services, please contact us.