Balance Your Stress to Balance the Scale
Stress is a part of everyone’s lives at some point or another, whether it comes from running late to an important meeting or dealing with family and relationship issues. But what happens when your stress levels are constantly high? Did you know that it can affect your health and weight loss goals? The research on stress and weight is constantly growing and we are learning more and more about this connection.
In the short term, stress is actually a helpful mechanism that evolved to help our ancestors survive. Our bodies are wired to adapt to stressful situations by creating a fight-or-flight response, which gives you a quick burst of energy to respond to an immediate stressor. Cortisol is the primary hormone involved with stress response- it causes glucose (sugar) to flow to the muscles to provide energy to deal with the stress. Another hormone involved with stress is insulin. Insulin is commonly called the “fat-storing hormone”, because its job is to move glucose from the blood into cells, where it will be stored as fat. When we are constantly stressed out, the body suppresses insulin and increases cortisol. This chronic hormonal cycling can damage our health, especially in terms of body fat, appetite, and blood sugar control.
Belly fat and obesity
High levels of cortisol in the body can lead to more fat being stored in visceral cells- cells that are deep inside your stomach, surrounding your organs. This kind of fat is more dangerous to your health because it becomes harder to get rid of when it is embedded in your body, and it also causes more inflammation. Studies have found that people, especially women, who have high stress levels are more likely to have increased levels of belly fat.
Appetite and cravings
Most people can agree that they don’t gravitate towards healthy foods when they are stressed out. The reason for this is, again, due to cortisol! When cortisol is released and insulin is suppressed, your cells are deprived of energy (since it’s being used to deal with the stress), which sends signals to your brain that you are hungry. This leads to increased appetite and overeating. A study found that women who produced high amounts of cortisol after a stressful situation consumed more calories and more sweet foods. People also tend to crave comfort foods in stressful times. High sugar and carbohydrate foods target the brain in a way that is similar to drugs, which is why cravings can sometimes feel so strong for these foods.
Diabetes and blood sugar control
When cortisol is elevated due to chronic stress, blood glucose levels will eventually become too high. This leads to more insulin being produced to lower the amount of glucose, but over time, this creates a resistance to insulin. Becoming resistant to insulin is one of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes, because your body can’t reduce the amount of glucose in the blood on its own.
So, what can you do??
Luckily, you can improve your health by tweaking your diet and lifestyle to manage your stress:
Your diet can also be altered to reduce stress. First, take a look at your caffeine and alcohol habits. Drinking too much of either can cause more anxiety and stress, as well as increase inflammation in the body. To minimize inflammation, try to consume a diet low in refined carbohydrates, alcohol, and caffeine, and high in healthy fats. Healthy fats include avocado, nuts, olives, olive oil, and coconut oil. It may also be helpful to increase the amount of antioxidants and fiber in your diet, which can be done by having a wide variety of vegetables and fruits daily.
Lastly, some supplements may help to combat stress. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements (also known as fish oil) can improve mood, anxiety, and stress. Another supplement that may help with both stress reduction and improved sleep is pure magnesium.
If you’re feeling stressed out, don’t forget that talking about it with someone can be a huge help. Get a friend on the phone, or chat with your Medifast counselor! Stress is a big deal and can affect so many aspects of our lives, so make sure that all of your hard efforts with diet and exercise aren’t being sabotaged by your stress levels.
About the Author
Cami Glosz is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Weight Control Counselor at the Encinitas Medifast Center. She got her Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Nutrition from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and currently lives in San Diego with her boyfriend. She enjoys cooking, hiking and yoga in her spare time.