Are you one of those people who can mindlessly get all the way to the bottom of a bag of chips while working furiously to make a deadline? Or maybe you’ve gone through an important life change like a breakup, moving into a new apartment, or starting a new job and suddenly your pants don’t quite fit the way they used to? There is a good chance that this is due to your stress levels which are wrecking your metabolism.
The link between stress and weight gain is unfortunately a triple threat: stress that goes on for extended periods increases our appetites, makes us hold onto the fat, and interferes with our willpower to make a positive lifestyle change. Here are some of the reasons why stress leads to weight gain, as well as a few ways to counteract its effects.
Whenever our brains detect the presence of a threat of any kind (be it a dangerous situation, or simply a large credit card bill payment), our bodies release a slew of hormones including adrenaline, CRH and cortisol. In the short term, adrenaline actually curbs hunger and gives us a keen sense of awareness. Unfortunately, once the adrenaline wears off, cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) takes over and tells our bodies to replenish our food supply. The types of stressors in our lives today typically do not require much physical energy on our parts (read: our ancestors’ stress came in the form of having to fight off wild animals whereas we sit around on the couch worrying about how to pay our bills), and so we do not burn enough energy to counteract the effects of the cortisol.
As part of our fight/flight response, our bodies release adrenaline which is responsible for our “wired up” feeling we can sometimes get when we’re stressed out. Adrenaline also causes anxiety, which is usually responsible for “emotional eating”. Overeating or eating unhealthy foods is actually a very common response to anxiety in modern American society. Anxiety has a tendency to make you eat “mindlessly” meaning that you could be eating much more than usual without really thinking about it, and without being satisfied, feeling full, or paying attention to the taste of what you’ve eaten.
Research shows that stress and worry is a major source of insomnia. Sleep is a very powerful factor influencing weight gain or loss because lack of sleep may disrupt our production of ghrelin and leptin, the chemicals in charge of controlling appetite. Stress also causes decreased blood sugar, which leads to fatigue. Typically, when we are feeling tired, our bodies crave carbs (and usually not the good kind). Finally, numerous studies have shown not getting enough sleep has a direct impact on our willpower and our ability to resist temptation.
When we are chronically stressed, our bodies usually crave “comfort foods” for both psychological and physiological reasons. These comfort foods are often high in fat, sugar and sodium, easy to eat and highly processed. Cortisol naturally causes us to crave more fat and sugar, and on top of that, in times of stress, our minds usually associate sweet foods with comforting childhood memories like freshly baked cookies. When we are stressed, we also find it much more difficult to use up any of our mental energy to plan a healthy meal for ourselves, so we are much more likely to simply go to a drive through and pick up junk food.
It probably comes as no surprise that one of the best ways to minimize the effects of stress and weight gain is to exercise. In fact, aerobic exercise not only helps you work off some of the extra calories you may have consumed by speeding up your metabolism, but it also decreases cortisol levels and helps to improve your mood.
This next tip is definitely easier said than done, but still has some merit: seeing the glass as half full instead of half empty. Studies have shown that pessimists have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, than people with a positive outlook. As we’ve covered, cortisol wreaks havoc on our metabolism and has also been liked to chronic inflammation and pain, so it’s best to keep it as low as possible.
It is also important to find rewarding activities unrelated to food in times of excessive stress. For example, taking a hike, keeping a journal, or reading a book can make you feel refreshed, improve your mood and lets you think more clearly so you are less likely to overeat. It might seem counterintuitive to spend time doing something like this when you already feel like you’re stretched so thin, but odds are that if you take the time to take care of yourself, you will be more productive and efficient in the long run which in turn will reduce your stress levels.
Read more about the link between stress and weight gain here.