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How Stress Is Keeping You From Your Weight Loss Goals

When you hear the word “stress” do you think it’s dangerous or unhealthy? In actual fact, stress itself is a totally normal response to a sense of danger. It’s your body’s way of protecting you with the “fight or flight” reaction. From an evolutionary perspective, stress serves a purpose by helping us survive immediate threats. Stress can help you to become more focused and have energy when facing immediate danger. This infrequent short-term stress was useful for escaping predators in the while, and in today’s society it can help you to run to your kid when (s)he is hurt, or avoid a collision. It can even help you to meet deadlines or get to appointments on time when running late. These are examples of infrequent short-lived stress called “acute” stress, or even “good” stress. And when the situation is over, the stress fades and your body goes back to normal. Ideally, this is how stress should be; infrequent and short-lived.

The problem is that in today’s society, many people feel stress often, and for a long time. It’s neither infrequent, nor short-lived. We’re living in state of chronic stress. This is different.

Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash

Our bodies can’t make the distinction between running from lions and being stuck in traffic. Stressful situations are prioritized by the body, no matter what the cause. Chronic stress (“bad” stress) can affect you in so many ways. It can affect your digestion, mood, and sleep. And, not surprisingly, it can affect your ability to lose weight. In fact studies show that chronic stress is associated with obesity and metabolic disease. And this is especially true for women. Women are at greater risk for stress-induced emotional eating, and obesity. This kind of stress can negatively affect your digestion, your mood, your health…and keep you from your weight loss goals.

Symptoms Of Stress

When your body senses danger (real or imagined), it immediately reacts with the “fight or flight” reaction to help you…well, “fight” or “flee”. Body functions essential for survival are prioritized. Things like perception, decision making, and energy for your muscles can help you flee a dangerous situation. The other “rest and digest” functions are put on the back-burner until the stress levels start fading. Functions like digestion, elimination and reproduction are low priorities when it comes to survival. Makes sense, right? Your resources are diverted to deal with the immediate threat, only in modern society that threat never goes away. We’re constantly running from lions.

“Two running lanes set up for sprinters to compete in a 100 meter race” by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

You probably know how stress affects you. Do you get cravings or indigestion? Do you feel more aches and pains, or get sick? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have more difficulty losing weight? Or get that brick-in-your-stomach feeling (which is your digestion going on hold)? Missed menstrual cycles, waking up in the middle of the night, indigestion, and mood imbalances are all signs of stress. It’s important to note that even if you feel like you’re “handling it”, stress still has an impact on your body. So what are the physical effects of stress? And how can these effects can keep you from your weight loss goals?

Stress Response — Nerves and Hormones

Stress-related symptoms are from the physiological effects of stress. Basically, how it affects our nervous system and hormones. Both of these have profound effects on the body because they’re trying to help you save your (or someone else’s) life. First up, the nervous system. The “fight or flight” part of your nervous system that is activated by stress is called the “sympathetic” nervous system. This part of your nervous system is usually (ideally) nice and quiet. It’s on “standby” until needed. On the other hand there is the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system called the “parasympathetic” nervous system. So, as you can imagine, when you have chronic stress your body isn’t doing much resting or digesting. And both of these are important for optimal health…and weight. Second is the impact on stress hormones. Have you heard of “cortisol” and “adrenaline?” These hormones are released by your adrenal glands. Adrenal glands look like little walnuts on top of each kidney, and they release a number of hormones, including these stress hormones.

Stress Hormones

When you perceive danger (real or imagined), this starts a hormone cascade that moves from your brain to your adrenal glands. It’s basically like when a bunch of people are in a circle and they’re passing the ball to the person beside them. But with stress hormones. First, a part in the brain called the “hypothalamus” gets your nervous system ready. It also releases a hormone to trigger the next hormone in the cascade. (Here’s the first pass of the ball.) Second, when the pituitary gland (also in the brain) gets that hormone, it releases a different hormone to trigger the next hormones in the cascade. (Here’s the second pass of the ball.) Third, when your adrenal glands (on your kidneys) get that signal, they release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Here’s where things get interesting. The fancy name for this connection between the brain’s hormones and adrenal hormones is called the “hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal axis”, or the HPA Axis. There is more and more research that shows a link between a dysregulation (improperly functioning) of the HPA Axis, and its association with insulin resistance and abdominal obesity. Furthermore, your stress hormones and reproductive hormones are both made from the same precursor, pregnenalone (known as “the mother of all hormones).

Under times of stress, your body will divert pregnenalone down the stress hormone pathway instead of the reproduction pathway — remember that part about reproduction being a low priority if you’re running from a lion? — because stress hormone production is an evolutionary priority. This is known as “the pregnenalone steal”.

The stress hormone cortisol affects many things in our bodies. Things like digestion and gut health, inflammation. hunger hormones, insulin release and sensitivity, mood, and sleep. All of these that are affected by stress hormones can also affect your weight.

by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

Stress Hormones and Weight

We now see that there are many, many effects that stress hormones, mainly cortisol, have on your body. Including the link that people with abdominal obesity tend to have higher cortisol levels. Let’s dive into each one and see how stress hormones keep you from your weight loss goals.

1 — Poor Digestion and Gut Health

As mentioned already, being in a state of stress puts digestion on the back burner. This is because your body is ready to “fight or flee,” rather than “rest and digest.” One of the most obvious impacts stress has on digestion is “transit time.” You may notice that stress can either quickly speed up how fast your food moves through you (diarrhea). Or, it may slow it down quite a bit (constipation). Neither one of these is ideal. So, even if you’re eating a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods, you may become nutrient deficient! And proper nutrition is needed at the best of times, let alone when you’re stressed and trying to lose weight. Certain nutrient needs even go up in times of stress. New research is also showing the impact that stress has on our friendly gut microbes. We’re just beginning to understand the influence that our gut microbes have on all aspects of health, including weight loss. It may be surprising to know that there seems to be a link between stress and gut microbes (in animals). Seriously! Stress is also linked with tiny holes or “leaks” in your digestive tract. This means that incompletely digested food particles can get into your body through these leaks. This can cause a ton of inflammation. Which leads us to the second major way stress keeps you from your weight loss goals.

2 — Inflammation and Immune System Dysregulation

Guess where 80% of your immune system is located? Right around your digestive tract! So, you can imagine if chronic stress is messing with your digestion, it’s going to also mess with your immune system. More and more research is suggesting that inflammation is part of many chronic diseases. When you’re chronically stressed, this affects your immune system which is supposed to control inflammation. It can make your immune system either hypervigilant, or less-responsive. And both of these can keep you from reaching your weight loss goals. If your immune system is hypervigilant, you can develop high inflammatory levels. If your immune system is less-responsive, it can allow your body to get sick more often, and stay sick longer. For optimal health, and the ability to lose weight, you want your immune system to work properly (not too high, nor too low).

3 — Cravings, Increased Appetite, and “Stress Eating”

When you’re stressed do you reach for celery? Or do you prefer fatty or sugary snacks? Many people tend to eat more food, particularly comfort food; things that tend to be starchy, fatty and sugary. These foods are nutrient dense (more calories per bite), and easier to digest. Simple carbs in particular provide quick energy, and require less stomach acid and enzymes to break down than protein (remember, your digestive system is a low priority under stress). Scientists are also now looking at interactions between stress hormones and the “hunger” and “fullness” hormones (ghrelin and leptin). There are many complex relationships between hormones.

4 — Insulin Sensitivity

Stress also increases your blood sugar, to make sure that your muscles have the fuel (sugar) they need to “fight” or “flee.” And if your muscles are not working and using up that excess blood sugar (i.e. you’re not running for your life), your body secretes insulin to re-absorb that sugar into your cells. This increase in both cortisol and insulin promote both insulin resistance and fat storage. Especially around the middle (helloooooo muffin top).

5 — Mood-busting and demotivating

Stress can not only bring down your mood, but that can also be terribly demotivating. When you’re feeling stressed, you may start feeling moody. You may also have less motivation to do the healthy weight loss activities that you really want to do. If you’re down in the dumps and not motivated to prepare healthy meals or snacks, or get some exercise, then you’re less likely to do those things. And we all know how important they are for weight loss.

6 — Negatively affects sleep

Cortisol is part of your natural sleep-wake cycle. Under normal (non-stressed) conditions, cortisol levels would increase before waking, and slowly drop during the day. And this makes sense, because we know that it helps increase mental clarity as well as blood sugar to fuel your muscles. And we need mental clarity and to move our muscles, especially when we are awake. But we also need this effect to “wear off” by the end of the day so we can start getting tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s sleep. In other words, in the evenings, we want to start more resting and digesting. And getting enough sleep is probably a more common reason why people don’t reach weight loss goals than most people think. Science is showing the links between not getting enough quality sleep and obesity.

Stress Management — It’s More Than Pretty Instagram Pictures

Stress has a real, physical effect on the body. It can effect sleep, reproduction and stress can keep you from your weight loss goals. That is why stress management is an important part of your wellness protocol or weight loss plan. I know stress management feels like just one more thing you don’t have time for, but truly it is worth it. And here’s the thing; it’s not about taking a week off for vacation or spending a whole day at the spa (I know I don’t have time for that!); there are many little things you can do in your day-to-day life to mitigate stress.

Here are some strategies you can easily implement in just 10–30 minutes. Pick one or two and add them to your calendar this week!