For most of us, stress is a fact of life. Unfortunately, recent research reveals that it's also a fact of fat. Even if you usually eat healthfully and exercise, chronic high stress can prevent you from losing weight - and it can even add kilos, says women’s health expert Dr Pamela Peeke.
This is what happens: Your body responds to all stress - physical or psychological - in exactly the same way. So every time you have a stressful day, your brain acts as though you're in physical danger and instructs your cells to release potent hormones. You get a burst of adrenaline, which taps stored energy, so you can fight or flee. At the same time, you get a surge of cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy, even though you haven't used very many kilojoules in your stressed-out state. This can make you hungry . . . very hungry. And your body keeps pumping out cortisol as long as the stress continues.
Sadly, few of us reach for carrot sticks in these situations. "Instead, we crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that actually do reduce tension," explains Dr Elissa Epel, a researcher on stress eating.
In addition, with your adrenal glands pumping out cortisol, production of the muscle-building hormone testosterone slows down. Over time, this drop causes a decrease in your muscle mass, so you are burning fewer kilojoules too.
Cortisol also encourages your body to store fat - especially visceral fat, which is dangerous because it surrounds vital organs and releases fatty acids into your blood, raising cholesterol and insulin levels and paving the way for heart disease and diabetes.
Obviously, getting rid of all anxiety isn't an option but recognising these six causes, you can get your cortisol level and your weight under control and improve your overall health at the same time.
Your blood slows so drop and do 10
That's right, power out some push-ups. Moving your muscles is an effective, instant stress reliever because it makes your blood circulate more quickly, transporting the cortisol to your kidneys, which then flush it out of your system. If push-ups aren't practical, try taking a stroll on your lunch break.
You eat too quickly so go slowly at meals
Under stress, we tend to scarf down even healthful food, and research has linked this behavior to bigger portions and more belly fat. Slowing down, savoring each bite, and paying attention to feelings of fullness may lower your cortisol level along with decreasing the amount of food you eat.
You try to resist cravings so give in
When stress drives you toward something sweet or salty, it's much better to indulge in a small way and cut off your cortisol response before it gets out of control. Have a piece of chocolate. You will feel better. Just stop at one. If you have trouble restraining yourself, take precautions so you won't binge. Buy a single cookie when you're out instead of keeping a box at home.
You drink too much coffee so curtail caffeine
Next time you're under duress, choose decaf. The combination of stress and caffeine raises your cortisol level more than stress alone. In one US study, consuming the equivalent of 2 1/2 to 3 cups of coffee while under mild stress boosted cortisol by about 25 per cent - and kept it up for 3 hours. And because a high cortisol level can contribute to stress eating, you might want to consider quitting caffeine altogether.
You're low in certain nutrients so build a better breakfast
Deficiencies in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium are stressful to your body, leading to an increased cortisol level and food cravings. But you can fight back by eating a breakfast that's high in these nutrients. Have orange juice, a grapefruit, or a handful of strawberries to supply vitamin C; 90-120g of low-fat yoghurt for calcium and magnesium; and a whole grain bagel or toast with a bit of peanut butter. Whole grains are bursting with B vitamins, while peanut butter contains fatty acids that can decrease the production of stress hormones.
You're tired so sleep it off
The most effective stress-reduction strategy of all: Get enough shut-eye. A US study found that getting an average of 6 1/2 hours of sleep each night can increase cortisol, appetite, and weight gain. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours. As if that weren't enough, other research has shown that lack of sleep raises the level of ghrelin, a hunger-boosting hormone. In one study, appetite increased by 23 percent in people who lacked adequate sleep. The good news? A few nights of solid sleep can bring it all into balance, and getting enough regularly helps keep it there.
First published: 25 Jun 2019