What do traffic jams, irritating bosses and lost car keys have in common? One thing: they may be causing you to gain weight.
Your stress level may be a major contributor to your struggle with weight. Today, one-third of all adults are overweight and at the same time we are more stressed than ever. Coincidence? Not likely. There is a real correlation between stress and weight gain. Thankfully, that can be turned around to help you get the extra weight off.
Stress and Weight Loss, the Hormones
We all do it–we grab a cookie or a bag of potato chips when we’re stressed out. But why? Why not reach for a carrot stick or a salad instead?
The answer is cortisol.
When you are under stress, your body’s reaction is to prepare you to deal with danger by releasing two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
Sometimes called the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, adrenaline gives you quick energy so you can either stay around and fight the danger or get away quickly.
The Cortisol Connection
You won’t feel the effects of the excess cortisol until later. And when you do, you’ll want to eat. You see, the main job of cortisol is to make you hungry.
It makes sense: after the adrenaline rush which demands so much from your body, the next step is to replenish. Fast. So it makes you crave foods that will give you quick energy—those foods that bring comfort like potato chips, chocolate candy and doughnuts. Unfortunately, these are the foods that will cause you to pack on the pounds.
But the effects of cortisol don’t stop at just revving up your appetite. There are other weight-influencing effects such as:
- Increased fat storage, particularly in the abdominal area. Extra abdominal fat, sometimes called toxic fat, is associated with increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and strokes.
- Decreased muscle mass. Testosterone needs to be present in order for you to build muscle, but cortisol reduces your testosterone levels. The result can be a slower metabolism, which ultimately leads to weight gain.
- Hunger signal confusion. Cortisol may interfere with other hormones in your body which tell you when you are hungry and when you are full. The resulting confusion may have you eating when you are not hungry.
When you consider that cortisol levels in your blood stream take a long time to come back down, the cycle of stress and weight gain begins to make sense.
If you, like so many people today, are under constant stress, then you are dealing with chronically elevated levels of cortisol in your body. Every bout of stress causes a new release of cortisol and brings with it the sabotaging effects on your health.
Stress and Weight Loss, Breaking the Cycle
The good news is that you can do a lot to break the cycle of stress and weight gain and even begin reversing the process.
You will never get away from stress completely. Stress is part of life. The key is to learn ways to reduce stress where you can and learn to cope with the inevitable stress of life.
1. Examine your stress. Can you pinpoint exactly what is causing your stress? If so, can you take steps to reduce it? Is there a phone call you are putting off or a project that is weighing you down? Making that call or breaking that project into manageable chunks may be all it takes to regain control.
If your stress is more generalized and you can’t quite identify the problem, you may want to visit a counselor. A trained counselor can help you learn ways to cope with stress that seems to be coming from all directions. Sometimes simply learning new and healthy ways of responding to feelings of stress can make all the difference in how it affects us.
2. Exercise. You knew it was coming, but wait! Just thirty minutes per day of physical exercise will reduce cortisol levels. To boost the effects of exercise even more, try interval exercise. Simply alternate your workout time between short bursts of intense effort (one minute) followed by a period of less intense activity (two minutes), and repeat several times.
Be sure to find a workout buddy. One of the best predictors of success in any fitness program is accountability. Find a friend you can be accountable to and/or workout with. It will make a huge difference in your commitment. And the exercise will begin reducing those extra pounds you may have put on.
3. Sleep. It sounds too easy, but getting enough sleep is a key player in managing cortisol levels, as well as other hormones that affect weight. People who get eight hours of sleep per night have half as much cortisol in their bodies as those who get less than six hours of sleep.
Further, when you don’t get enough sleep, the hormone that makes you want to eat (ghrelin) increases, and the hormone that makes you feel full (leptin) decreases.
4. Plan your eating strategy. Smart eating choices don’t just happen: you have to plan for them. Here are some tips to outsmart cortisol:
- Don’t skip meals. Eating well-balanced meals will give you an edge when cravings start. If you’re already ravenous when the stress hits, you will be more tempted to give in to unhealthy snacks.
- Carry healthy snacks with you. Keep nuts, vegetable sticks, fruits, and water with you, especially during those times when you typically get stressed and start craving unhealthy foods.
- Keep unhealthy foods out of your house, car and office. If they aren’t in front of you, you can’t eat them. But be sure to replace them with healthier choices.
- Distract yourself and wait it out. If you are feeling stressed and are about to eat the flowers off the wallpaper, try to wait. Take a walk, grab a book, call a friend—do something to distract yourself and give the cortisol time to level out in your system.
You can do this. You can take control, make a plan, and reverse the negative effects of stress in your life. Be patient with yourself as you learn new ways of coping, and soon you will be healthier—both inside and out.