This week we discussed the numerous ways in which stress affects a person’s eating and exercising habits. We had a great discussion, but I feel we were only able to scratch the surface since so many of us live in a chronically stressed state. For some of us, living with stress is the only way to live and to rid ourselves of stress would seem dull and unnatural. In our culture, stress is glorified. Stress is king. Stress is how stuff gets done! But here’s the thing: If you want great health, you’ll have to make a commitment to manage the stress in your life differently. If you want to lose weight or maintain your weight, chronic stress is public enemy number one.
Stress vs Chronic Stress
Our bodies stress response is actually a wonderful invention. When our body perceives a threat, our endocrine and nervous system work together at a lighting fast speed to alert us to the danger. We get a surge of hormones and chemicals that enable us to take immediate action. Our pupils dilate, our heart beats fast and blood gets diverted to the large muscles of the body and this just might save your life. This is called the acute stress response, otherwise known as “Fight-or-flight.” Once the perceived threat is over, the body returns to a more balanced state. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is what happens when the body stays in that stress response state.
Chronic Stress & Your Weight
The stress response affects your health habits both directly and indirectly. Stress increases hunger hormones, which leads to increased appetite and cravings. It also decreases your satiety hormones so that you don’t feel satisfied when you do eat. Increased cortisol has been correlated with increased visceral adiposity— “belly fat”—which is particularly risky in terms of inflammation and disease. This is the shortened version of what happens. For a more detailed version, visit here. Sometimes it’s good to have a little background info on what is happening from a biological standpoint so that you can develop effective strategies. Too often people assume that they have a lack of willpower or discipline when the truth is that chronic stress is highjacking their biology.
Stress causes us to reach for comfort foods as a way to medicate the brain. We crave high sugar, high fat, and salty foods because that provides the instant gratification that we both crave and have been accustomed to enjoy. From a very early age, our brains learned to associate sweet and savory foods with rewards. If we had good behavior, we were rewarded with a cookie. If we were sad, depressed, happy or mad, we were given food to cope. You may not remember all of the ways that food was used to medicate, but the brain does. When we are stressed, we don’t reach for grilled fish and broccoli. No, we reach for the foods that will provide us with that quick boost in mood and energy. We fail to remember that the junk food never really solves our problems, but actually creates more problems in the long-term.
Chronic stress also means we don’t have time to arrange our world for success. When we’re stressed, we are thinking about the here and now and we’re not taking time to nurture ourselves through proper diet and exercise. We’re also not likely getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep, which further feeds this vicious cycle of stress.
Strategies for Reducing the Stress
In many cases, it is possible to avoid stress all together. In other instances, you can adapt or alter your response to it. Stress is not something that happens to us, but rather it is how we perceive it. It’s the classic serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Brain Food and Exercise
Last, but not least, consider diet and exercise as part of the solution. Your diet is either feeding disease or fighting disease and it’s up to you to choose foods that heal. Learning to bypass junk food and choosing nourishing foods instead is a process that may take some time. Junk food provides instant gratification, whereas most nourishing foods provide sustained health benefits. A healthy diet need not be complicated. Find a system that works for you and stick with it. Your diet should consist of whole, natural foods and should include plenty of vegetables, lean proteins and fruit as a dessert. Reduce or eliminate added sugar in your diet by reading labels and ingredients. In terms of exercise, the mantra is, “Just do it.” The best exercise regimen is the one that you actually do. Exercise is a one-two punch for stress and weight management. Exercise, of course, is a way to manage weight by burning energy, but it’s also the treatment for relieving stress. When we exercise, our body releases chemicals that calm us and makes us feel good. Think of exercise as a way to burn off the harmful effects of stress—a way to decrease the amount of cortisol floating around in our bloodstream.
If you’re tired of jumping from one diet to another, look closely at the sources of stress in your life. Can you avoid, alter or adapt?