Why Stress Could be Making Your Diet Fail

Stress and weight loss

Stress is a major problem today thanks to social media, long working hours, lack of physical activity and numerous other factors.  Did you know it’s estimated that between 75-90% of all visits to the GP are related, either directly or indirectly, to conditions caused by stress?

While stress causes a variety of health conditions, one of the most common, which many people are unaware of, is the impact stress has on our hormone levels and our ability to maintain a healthy weight and stress that goes on for a long time is a triple whammy for weight management – it increases our appetites, makes us hold on to fat we already have and reduces our willpower making it harder to implement a healthy lifestyle.

The reasons why stress leads to weight gain are complex but the four major ones are:

Our hormones – When your brain detects danger, whether that’s a sabre-toothed tiger on the hunt or a looming work deadline, your body releases a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline, CRH (Corticotropin-releasing hormone) and cortisol.  These help your body to feel alert, ready for action and able to deal with injury.   Fighting off the tiger would take a lot of energy but luckily cortisol (the stress hormone) hangs around after the danger and signals the body to start replenishing its energy supply.   Unfortunately sitting at your desk worrying about missing that deadline isn’t using quite as much energy as our ancestors would have used fighting the sabre-tooth but we’ve still got the same physiological system working to keep us safe so your brain is still going to tell you to get some food and fast as you can!

Belly Fat – back in the days when we had real and frequent threats from tigers and famine our bodies adapted to store energy for times of scarcity.  Unfortunately for us that means that when we’re chronically stressed by work/life demands we tend to get an extra layer of “visceral fat” in our bellies.  This fat is tricky to get rid of and releases chemicals that trigger inflammation in the body causing more stress in the system and increasing our risk of heart disease and diabetes.  Excess cortisol also slows down your metabolism to ensure there’s an adequate supply of glucose available when needed to deal with potential dangers.

Cravings and Fast Food – When we’re stressed we crave comfort foods and there are both biological and psychological reasons for this.  Stress plays havoc with our brain’s reward system by decreasing levels of the “happy hormones” such as serotonin so we crave foods that will give us the “reward” based experience such as highly processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods.

Poorer Sleep Habits – Research shows that worry is a major cause of insomnia.  When levels of cortisol and other stress hormones like adrenaline are abnormally elevated throughout the day it can be difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.  This lack of sleep impacts directly on weight maintenance as a lack of sleep affects the hormones leptin and ghrelin which dictate both appetite and feelings of satiety.  Also, lack of sleep will erode our willpower and ability to resist temptation.

So what’s a person to do?

There are a number of ways that you can try to minimise the impact your stress levels have on your weight.  These include:

Exercise – Exercise has been shown to reduce cortisol and trigger the release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood so it’s a good stress-buster.  Picking an activity that’s quite challenging and forces you to focus so you can’t think about whatever’s stressing you is particularly effective.  In addition, being active will help increase your metabolism so you burn off some of the extra calories that you may have “emotionally” overeaten.

Meditate/Mindfulness – More and more research is emerging to show the benefits of mindfulness or breathing practices for lowering stress levels.  This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged in a darkened room with a candle and repeating “Ommmm”.  There are now some really good apps that make spending a few minutes being mindful very easy.  Getsomeheadspace.com and Calm.com are both worth checking out.  Even a few minutes a day can have a profound impact on your body’s stress levels.

Keep a Gratitude Journal – Writing can give you an insight into why you’re feeling so stressed and adding in a few things that you’re grateful for, however small a win they may be, switches your brain from focusing on the negatives to a more positive way of thinking.  This can help increase feelings of your ability to cope and reduce the emphasis on your problems.

So the take-home here is that even though your stress levels might be making it hard to lose weight, there are steps you can take which will help reduce your stress and those are important for your general health as well as your ability to lose weight.

If you’d like some more help with weight loss or finding a suitable exercise programme to help you reduce your stress levels then please get in touch with us.