Stress is sabotaging your weight loss
Most of us know what we need to do to stay healthy, despite the conflicting information. On the whole, if we stay consistent with healthy movement practices and keep calorie intake under control, we’ll improve our overall health and physique. Right?
So why isn’t this happening? Are we just a rebel society? Do we just not want to follow the rules (recommendations)? No. We’re just caught up in a world that’s a little too advanced for our biology. Things are happening a little too fast for our (gene’s) liking & we’re paying the price.
If you’re someone that’s doing all the right things but are still finding your weight loss goals tough to achieve, OR if you’re well intentioned about make better lifestyle choices, but can’t seem to stay on track, this article will lend an insight into why.
Our hardwired stress response
Constant low-grade stress is, quite frankly, horrible for our health. It contributes to obesity, heart disease and Type II diabetes (1). Since we don’t necessarily feel the peaks of stress, and certainly don’t experience catastrophic impact with each stressful event, this association is unfortunately overlooked and under appreciated.
We’re hard-wired with a very effective stress response that allows us to fight danger, or run away from it, fast. We’ve all heard the “saber toothed tiger” analogy. In moments of extreme danger, a scurry of physiological events occur to allow us to live another day and, with any luck, procreate (2). Our mental acuity is heightened, our vision sharpens. Our pupils dilate, heart rate increases, digestion slows down and blood glucose levels rise for quick access to fuel (3).
This is all well and good when there’s a real threat. Nowadays we have different types of threats. We deal with more subtle stressors than “the sabre toothed tiger is gonna eat me”, but the same physiological response is triggered nonetheless. Whether it’s deadlines at work, financial constraints, kid’s playing up at school or navigating the complexities of weight loss – our bodies are constantly assessing and managing “danger”.
Stress, hormones and obesity
The human being is impressively adaptable, which has allowed us to become, what some would call, “the dominant species”. The paradox here is that this adaptability has contributed to the overwhelming obesity and chronic disease epidemic that troubles the world over. All systems adapt for only so long until they break, and this is exactly what happens to the endocrine (hormonal) system under chronic stress.
When we talk hormone dysregulation, we’re referring largely to cortisol – the up and go hormone, leptin & ghrelin – the appetite hormones, and insulin – the often demonized blood sugar moderator (2).
These hormones are constantly in flux – adjusting to the foods we eat, the sleep we get (or don’t get) and the physical and emotional stressors we experience. When the accumulation becomes too much, the endocrine system starts to “feel the stress”, for lack of a better term. Appetite signals become confused, cells and their metabolic machinery wear out, and energy usage get’s a little messy. All roads lead to weight gain.
Have you noticed when you’ve got a tight deadline at work, you totally forget to stop for lunch? Initially, acute stress decreases appetite through the secretion of leptin and suppression of ghrelin (2). In this brief moment we’re free deal with the given stress, without being distracted by the drive to eat.
The pendulum swings
In the hours after a stressful event, the brain up regulates cortisol to reclaim the energy used earlier. Here’s the kicker, your brain thought you were running away from a tiger, when in reality you were stuck in front of your computer screen (not using much energy at all). None the less, cortisol is in full swing, influencing two things:
1) Increased Appetite: Cortisol acts on leptin by decreasing the brains ability to detect it (leptin resistance). Leptin tells the brain when we’re full. If this information doesn’t get delivered, the result is pretty unfavourable. If this wasn’t enough, cortisol also pulls the strings on ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Now all systems are go for “Project Stuff Your Face”.
2) Promoting Fat Storage: Cortisol increased the activity of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme largely responsible for fat breakdown and delivery into adipose tissue (body fat). This has been shown to occur predominantly, but not only, in visceral (deep belly) fat.
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol, due to chronic stress also contributes to elevated insulin levels. In tern, elevated insulin levels can also contribute to poor appetite control, as well as insulin resistance, the hallmark of Type 2 Diabetes.
So if we were to make a simple equation of all this –
STRESS = ↑ APPETITE + ↑ FAT STORAGE = OBESITY
Stress, behaviour and food choices
Stress eating is a real thing. Emotional eating is too. Essentially they’re one and the same. Negative emotions set off a stress response leaving us with a similar hormonal cascade as discussed above.
I’m here to tell you that if you’re stress eating, it’s not your fault. It’s the hormonal dysregulation that drives us to over eat and typically reach for high calorie foods. Part of this is mixed signals, tricking the brain to believe it needs a quick energy source. The other part of it is the dopamine rush that our brain seeks during tough times. It know’s that the sweet, fatty cheese cake is gonna do the trick.
If it’s not your fault, does it mean you’re let off the hook? Do you throw up your arms and just blame the hormones – much like we often want to blame our genes? No! There’s still personal responsibility to take for making poor food choices. However, knowing this simple fact can help us to reframe the situation – from one of shame and guilt, to recognizing a natural mechanism that’s triggered by a stressful environment.
Shame and guilt are emotions, i’m sure you’d agree. We’ve also agreed that negative emotions are a stress. Therefore if we’re to allow ourselves to feel this way after a Ben & Jerry’s binge, we’re just perpetuating a viscous cycle. Where to from here, you ask? Rather than fighting the behaviour, let’s address the stressor.
Addressing the stressor
I could sit here and tell you that you need to work less, cut off toxic relationships and ignore current affairs. In reality, how much of that is possible? I’ll be the first one to admit that I glorify being busy as a symbol of importance, and could make more free time than I think I have, but ultimately cutting stressful events out is not the sustainable route (at least for the short term).
Addressing the stressor means learning how to respond rather than react. It means bringing awareness (with practice) to your behaviours in certain situations, assessing it and course correcting if necessary. There are a number of tools that can be very powerful in changing the stress response, and hence eating behaviour. What’s also cool, is that these techniques have also been proven to have positive physiological effects that protect us from the damage of stress hormones. That’s a double win.
Tools to manage the stress response
Mindfulness is a technique that involves paying attention to our actions and our interactions within our environment. It’s become increasingly popular in recent years, ironically in parallel with the increasing distractions that exist from technology to social pressures. In general mindfulness has been proven to influence stress reduction and help people to manage anxiety and depression.
In a weight loss context, mindfulness can help us manage the stress response to everyday happenings. By pausing, paying attention and reframing, mindfulness puts the power into our hands as to whether we control the situation, or allow it to control us. This practice, over time, can shift the hormonal response to stress, positively impacting health, and reducing dysregulation of appetite and fat storage.
MBE is the specific application of mindfulness to eating behaviour. It involves consciously observing cravings, smell, taste, feelings of fullness, true hunger, habits and stress eating. It involves removing all external stimulus when we eat, such as Netflix or the smartphone, and really being present with the meal (4)(5).
The benefits to come out of mindfulness-based eating involve reduced response to cravings, less over eating and calorie intake, and better digestion as a result of adequate chewing (5). I strongly recommend reading this article, to learn more about MBE.
Meditation has made big waves in the wellness space in recent years – and for good reason. It’s believed to reduce stress and promote relaxation, which can down-regulate the physiological stress and hormonal responses inked to obesity (6).
One common form of meditation is mindfulness meditation, which involves anchoring ourselves in the present moment. It’s practiced by bringing our focus to either the breath or the body, and re-centering when the mind drifts. Other forms of meditation include Transcendental, Zen and Loving Kindness meditation.
Meditation also allows for a moment to sit with emotions and beliefs. If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you’ll know that our beliefs play a major role in long term success. When we get swept up by the pace of modern life, there’s little opportunity to sit with negative thoughts that can sabotage progress. These thoughts are often false, and just stories that play on repeat if not consciously reframed.
Deep breathing, specifically diaphragmatic breathing, has been shown to alter our physiology in positive and powerful ways. Elevated cortisol levels from chronic stress can create inflammation that contributes to disease, accelerated aging and fat storage. Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown in clinical research to lower the cortisol response, decrease inflammation, and strengthen the antioxidant defence systems. (7). It’s thought that the benefits to come from practices like yoga, meditation and tai-chi largely come from the one thing they all share, focused breathing.
It seems that the aged old advice to take 10 deep breathes when feeling the heat, may have something to it. Deep breathing is a very practical tool that anyone can use to counter the destructive force of chronic stress. Here’s a great example of how to do diaphragmatic breathing effectively.
The 5 pillars
Stress management is one of the 5 pillars of health and weight loss. If the stress pillar is one of the weaker ones, take the time to address it. We’re often quick to place blame on food and exercise before considering stress and emotion. Indeed it’s not as defined a practice to implement like “cutting out all sugar as of tomorrow”, but no matter how hard you try to create certain habits, they won’t stick if the stress pillar isn’t in good shape. While good food, exercise and healthy sleep are moving you 2 steps forward, chronic stress will likely pull you one step back.
One final note before we part. Keep in mind that while calorie balance and exercise is what’s required for weight loss, it’s also a stress on the body. It’s important that any calorie restriction is not too extreme for to too long, and that we factor in sufficient recovery for exercise. If you’re someone who’s more prone to stress in other areas of life, a more moderate exercise approach and gentler calorie deficit would likely bring about better results.
- Cortisol, obesity and the metabolic syndrome: A cross-sectional study of obese subjects and review of the literature
- Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity
- Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation
- Effects of a mindfulness‐based weight loss intervention in adults with obesity: A randomized clinical trial
- Association between Mindfulness and Weight Status in a General Population from the NutriNet-Santé Study
- Mind-Body Solutions for Obesity
- Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress