Stress and Weight Gain
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Stress. It’s something everyone deals with every once in a while. Your body has a great way of dealing with stress. It raises your heartbeat and your breathing, it gets your muscles ready for action and gets the adrenaline and stress hormones pumping. Everything to get you ready for action in response to the stress.
All of this is great if you’re standing eye to eye with a bear or a tiger. You really need all the extra energy and hormones to either fight or flight.
But what if your stress is chronic? Not related to a bear standing in front of you but coming from your daily life or worries in your head? Then you don’t need your body to be on high alert at all times. But it still is. And this can cause you problems.
Living under constant stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, stroke, chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression and immune disorders.
As mentioned in my article about Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) stress can also trigger gut issues. Which in turn can lead to a vicious cycle, where you could get stressed about your gut issues.
All the more reason to try and get your daily stressors under control I’d say!
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Stress, Sleep, and Hunger
Stress can come in different forms, and everyone experiences it differently. Stressors can be emotional (having a fight, losing a loved one, losing a job) or physical (malnutrition, illness, pain). How you perceive the stress is also dependent on your personality and emotional state. Things that get you stressed, might not be too stressful for others and vice versa. This makes stress a very personal experience.
When we are stressed, our minds are overactive. Thinking about the stressors, how to solve them or how to best deal with it. A lot of people get these thoughts wandering through their heads once they get to bed. These worries interrupt the sleep cycle, and a lack of sleep messes with the hormones Ghrelin and Leptin, these hormones control your appetite. Which basically can leave you feeling more hungry. And what makes it even worse, is that a stressed brain has a strong drive to eat and has a lesser ability to stop eating. Which can easily lead to weight gain.
Sleep deprivation (less than 5 hours of sleep a night) is strongly associated with obesity, insulin resistance (and thus diabetes), high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Studies have shown that not every person starts to eat differently while stressed. Roughly 40% of the people increase their calorie intake when stressed, while 40% decrease it. 20% of people don’t change their food intake when stressed.
Also when feeling tired, you can lack the energy to prepare yourself a healthy meal and fatigue reduces your willpower. You could easily end up in the Fastfood joint or with an easy meal.
Recent research actually shows that the timing of stress also plays an important role. Peaks of stress during the day don’t seem to stimulate the production of extra fat cells, whereas chronic stress or stress in the evening/night does. The reason for this is an unnatural rise in certain hormones (glucocorticoids). Usually, these glucocorticoids are most active in the morning and decrease during the day, with the lowest point in the middle of the night.
Stress stimulates the glucocorticoids, and having them at high levels during the late afternoon/night stimulates the growth of fat cells.
Stress and Food
When people are stressed nowadays, food often provides relief. Also known as ‘comfort food’ the fatty and sugary foods make people feel better for a little while. Comfort food can be anything from a bar of chocolate, a tub of ice cream or bag of crisps. But these foods also help you gain weight quite easily since they are very high in calories. A recent study in mice even found that eating ‘comfort food’ while being stressed leads to greater weight gain in mice than eating ‘comfort food’ while they’re not stressed. This difference was not seen in stressed mice that ate healthily.
A certain hormone (NPY to be precise) is being produced by the brain once you’re chronically stressed. This NPY-hormone stimulates food intake which leads to greater food consumption. The mice study also showed a 10x higher insulin response in stressed mice that ate ‘comfort food’. And insulin is a hormone that helps store fat. The researchers of the study confirm that humans and mice use the same NPY-hormone system, so it could be very likely that humans have a similar response to being chronically stressed.
Another way people often try to find relief from stress is the use of alcohol. Alcohol helps the muscles in the body relax and get your mind off your worries. Unfortunately, alcohol also contains a lot of calories and can cause a fatty liver if used in overdose.
Do you have problems with gaining weight? Would you like guidance from a specialized dietitian? Then schedule an online consultation at my online dietician’s practice Darm diëtist, and I will help you with all your questions!
How to Overcome Weight Gain From Stress
The main step to overcoming weight gain as a result of stress is trying to lower stress. It may not always be possible to completely eliminate the source that is causing the stress, but there are always ways to lower the stress in your body.
As mentioned earlier in my article, getting less than 5 hours of sleep for a longer period of time can lead to an increased appetite. And on its own, sleep deprivation is stressful for the body.
So try to get enough sleep by going to bed on time. Ideally, you should aim for 7-8 hours of sleep every night. If you have trouble falling asleep, try one of the following tips:
|Don’t use your phone in the hour before you go to bed. Either turn your phone off, or just put it away. The blue light from the screen stops your body from producing melatonine which helps get you sleepy. |
If you do want to use your phone, make sure to download a blue light filter app. There’s tons of them you can download for free.
If you have a hard time putting your phone away, but do want to, try the app ‘Flipd’. It’s a free app which can completely lock your phone for you for the desired amount of time. Your phone cannot be unlocked except for calls and emergency calls and you won’t get any notifications.
|Take a warm shower right before bed. The warm water calms your nervous system and muscles. You’ll get into bed relaxed, nice and warm.|
|Turn the lights down in the hour before bed, the darker it is, the sleepier you get.|
|If your mind is overactive, try putting some background music on (on very low volume) while falling asleep. Do choose something calming like instrumental, deep house or a chill playlist. Try to listen to music to stop any overactive thoughts taking over.|
|Put a notebook next to your bed, and get everything out of your head and written down. Also anything that comes to mind that you need to do, just make a to-do list. You’ll notice your mind getting calmer real fast!|
Another solution is to take your mind off the stress. Do you have a hobby? Something you love doing? Try to implement that activity in your day (and if you have little time, your week). Doing the things you love gets you into a flow, where it’s easy to forget everything around you. This gives your mind and body a moment of rest to repair and forget about the stress. Trust me, you’ll feel better afterward.
If you don’t have a hobby yet, try having a look at the ultimate list of hobbies on the website of Public Generalist. So many hobbies to try!
If you don’t have much time, but have a lot of thoughts going around in your head. Try writing them down! Get the most gorgeous notebook you can possibly find (I love leather ones or ones with gorgeous prints like these ones on Amazon) and just start writing. Pick a moment of the day where you have a little time to spare. It might be at lunch break, right after dinner or even right before bed. Just a moment, it can be 1 minute or 10 minutes, to clear your mind of everything that’s keeping you occupied at the moment. You’ll notice the relief it brings to not have the thoughts circling around in your head anymore.
Since it’s not just the stress that is causing possible weight gain, it is wise to be mindful of your eating. If you decide to eat, try to make sure you’re completely present while doing so. Have no distractions while eating (like a phone, the newspaper or TV) and keep your attention to your food and chewing. This way your body actually registers that you’re eating and you’ll be more satisfied and satiated after your meal. This, in turn, leads to smaller portion sizes and fewer eating moments. And can help stop the weight gain from stress.
People who are stressed, tend to breathe quite shallow. Shallow breathing can leave you dizzy, lightheaded and just not feeling too well. Which can make you feel even more stressed.
If you’re stressed (and also especially before you start eating) take a moment to notice your breath. Where is your breath? Is it high up on your chest? Maybe shallow? Is it going all the way down to your stomach?
Once you’ve established where your breath is going, try to breathe deeply. Breathe in through your nose, and make sure your breath goes all the way down into your belly. Expand your belly when you breathe in and your belly shrinks again once you breathe out (can be through the nose or the mouth, whichever you prefer).
Breathing through the nose and into the belly is the optimal breathing for your body to get the most air and oxygen into the lungs.
Also, paying attention to your breath helps get your mind off your stress.
If you have difficulty breathing deeply, try doing it with the help of an app. There are tons of apps if you search for ‘breathe’ that guide you through quick breathing exercises to do during your day.
Physical activity helps your body get rid of tension and stress. Being active actually helps produce hormones that leave you feeling happy.
It does not really matter what kind of exercise or activity you’re doing. Anything you like is fine. It can be walking, cycling, rollerskating, weight lifting, yoga or swimming. As long as it feels good, it’s doing its job.
While doing the physical activity, your mind is occupied with the movement you’re making, and not focussing on the stress anymore. This is a great way to reduce stress.
Another advantage is the energy you’re using. Exercise helps you burn calories, and thus will help you avoid weight gain.
So, what have you done to lower your stress levels? And has it worked to maintain your ideal body weight? Let me know in a comment!
Hi there, I’m Manon.
In my daily life I work as a registered dietitian in the Netherlands with a special interest in gut health.
During my workday I get loads of questions about healthy food, recipes and lifestyle to make it a little easier to get healthy. On Positive Gut I collect my best recommendations, tips and recipes to make your healthy lifestyle a little easier!