I’m not sure there is a person on earth who hasn’t felt extended stress from this pandemic. The unfortunate reality is chronic stress can cause weight gain. It’s ability to increase cravings, blood sugar, & belly fat can derail any weight loss goals. The key is learning to turn-off stress hormones regardless of what is happening around you.
We can’t control the stress we are given, but we can control how we react!
In general, stress is not bad in appropriate doses. Stress hormones rise when threatened and fall after the threat is gone. When the threat continues day after day, the natural rhythm gets altered causing a cascade of problems.
Now, stay with me as I simplify…
Cortisol is the stress hormone secreted when a real or believed threat occurs.
Many know this as the “Fight or Flight” response. Technically, its the Sympathetic nervous system, but we will call it SNS to simplify.
SNS directs the body’s automatic response to dangerous or stressful situations.
For example, you just found out you lost your job. Your body’s response would be:
- blood pressure increases
- blood flow decreases from digestive tract and reproductive organs
- epinephrine & the stress hormone cortisol increases
- blood sugar increases
The Parasympathetic nervous system, or what we will call PNS for short.
PNS is known as “Rest & Digest” and is activated once the stress is gone, after a meal and when we feel pleasure.
Your boss then explains you will receive a one year severance package. Your body’s response:
- heart rate & respiration slow
- blood pressure drops
- blood flow is diverted back to the digestive tract & reproductive organs
- stress hormones decrease
The unfortunate reality for many is the multiple stressors and threats on the SNS daily that the PNS is never activated.
The natural rhythm of SNS & PNS hormones are cortisol is high in the morning & tapers in the evening. When this rhythm is broken will power will not save you. The unfortunate result is weight gain.
So how does the SNS lead to weight gain?
First off, it increases hunger & appetite
Once cortisol is in steady flow the imbalance can send you to the fridge searching for sugar & carbs. This study found a direct correlation between elevated cortisol and cravings for high calorie foods.
Secondly, it increases the rate you store fat
Not only will you crave more sugar & carbs, you will be more efficient at storing fat. In addition to the elevated cortisol, fat stores begin producing cortisol too! A double whammy! Now that occasional treat is more likely to stick around longer…especially around your waist!
Thirdly, it increases belly fat
Fourthly, it reduces your ability to burn fat
Unfortunately, once you are craving and storing fat more efficiently not only do you have to worry about a muffin top but fat accumulation can be increased all over the body. Higher levels of body fat increase inflammation making you more weight loss resistant.
Lastly, it raises your blood sugar
Naturally, cortisol increases our blood sugar when in Fight or Flight. This provides fuel needed to escape the stressful event. Unfortunately, Type 2 diabetes risk increases when blood sugar is elevated for long periods of time.
So what can you do?
This is when trial and error comes into play. It’s about finding what works for you. The key is to find a few solutions that turn off your SNS and turn on your PNS.
- Journal– It can provide insight into why you are feeling stressed.
- Sleep– 6-8 hours of sleep will be refreshing.
- Exercise– Get your heart rate up and break a sweat. Yoga is especially good at activating your PNS.
- Meditation– Increases your PNS activity creating a sense of calm.
- Deep breathing-Taking slow deep breaths can activate your PNS.
- Media fast- Turn off the tv and stay off your phone. Avoiding the negative can boost your mood & your PNS.
- Cold-water splash– Splashing your face with cold water can jumpstart the PNS.
- Yawn– The exaggerated inhale and exhale of a yawn triggers the PNS.
- Nature– Go for a walk, hike or just sit in your yard & listen to the birds. Getting out in nature is healing.
- Hobbies– doing things you find pleasure in will naturally stimulate the PNS.
In conclusion, stress management takes planning and effort. You will never escape stress, but hopefully you can minimize weight gain by implementing some of these strategies.