Slim down your stress, manage your weight
You got away from work late. You couldn’t find your car keys. Once you found them, it was raining and the traffic was super heavy. You get home late and realise that you forgot to pick up groceries for dinner. Your tummy starts to gnaw, and you feel like grabbing for chips and chocolate.
It’s likely that we’ve all experienced a night like this and become cranky and a little overwhelmed. That is because we are experiencing stress. With stress, the demands being made on both our mind and body, outstrip the reserves we have to cope with them.
While there will always probably be the odd night like this, it’s important for our long-term health that we learn to manage our stress. One area of concern related to ill-managed stress is the impact on our ability to maintain a healthy body weight. Let’s explore why.
The two types of stress
In simple terms, there are two types of stress. The first kind of stress is short-term, where the stressor may be small. We are generally able to handle this kind of stressor without too much fuss.
The second kind of stress is long-term stress, which is repetitive and ongoing. We may be caring for a sick relative, working huge hours or working in a job we hate. This kind of stress can last for months or years.
The body handles each kind of stress differently.
With short-term stress, the body moves back to status quo quickly. For example, perhaps your child is sick and you need some paracetamol. You have 10 minutes to get to the supermarket before it closes. Or, you hear a bump in the night and become frightened. During periods of acute stress like this, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Your adrenal glands secrete the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine which prepare your body for survival mode. These hormones elevate your heart rate and blood pressure. They also increase the rate at which fat and carbohydrates in your system are broken down. These changes provide the means for you to stay hyper vigilant and have the energy to run away or fight if need be. Once the threat is eliminated, and you have bought the paracetamol, or realised the bump was a tree in the wind, your body can return to its normal state.
However, long-term stress has a more profound effect on the body, which can lead to bodily and emotional exhaustion. Instead of the transient peaks of the flight-or-fight hormones, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, the primary stress hormone. What is more, the body becomes used to these raised levels and so establishes a new baseline tolerance. If high stress increases, the secretions continue to increase.
Having cortisol in the body is not the problem. However, during long-term stress raised cortisol levels can last for some time. This can lead us to crave high energy foods. High levels of cortisol stimulate our appetite. Moreover, it can influence a rise in insulin levels. Insulin is responsible for regulating blood sugar. As the insulin level raises, blood sugar levels drop. This can create cravings for especially calorie-dense foods to regain a reasonable blood sugar level.
How prolonged stress leads to weight gain
Higher levels of cortisol over a long period leads to increased insulin levels, which in turn leads to lower blood sugar, and finally sugar cravings. Therefore, a cycle forms in which we constantly crave sugar and might be likely to reach for “comfort foods”. Such foods are high in refined sugar and fat. And don’t they taste good? This is because the brain experiences a calming effect from these foods. That is why we often continue to reach for them!
However, stress also leads us to store more fat. Cortisol activates lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme responsible for depositing and storing fat. A group of researchers found a correlation between high cortisol levels and central fat accumulation (distribution of fat around the mid-section).
The researchers studied women at rest and conducted stress tests on them. Measurements of participant cortisol levels and psychological responses were taken after each rest or testing session. The researchers found that these correlations back up the existing hypothesis that long-term stress can lead to greater central fat accumulation.
Therefore, eating well is not enough to keep our body as healthy as it could be. While diet is important, so is our response to stress.
Tips for managing stress
1. Connect with others – make sure you see friends regularly, join a group, get to know those around you better
2. Give – ensure that you feel you are making a worthwhile contribution
3. Take Notice – stop and notice how you are feeling, take a break, take care of yourself, prioritise tasks
4. Keep Learning – learn something different, challenge yourself in a new way
5. Be Active – ensure that you are physically active, bring activity into the everyday, have fun with it!
Bridgewater LC, et al. Gender-based differences in host behavior and gut microbiota composition in response to high fat diet and stress in a mouse model. Nature Scientific Reports. 2017; 7(1):10776.
Epel ES, et al. Stress and body shape: Stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2000;(62):623-32.
Maglione-Garves, CA et al. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal. 2005; 9(5):20-23.
Montes M and Kravitz L. Unraveling the Stress-Eating-Obesity Knot: Exercise can significantly mitigate the effects of stress and weight gain. IDEA Fitness Journal. 2011; 8(2):44-50.
Tips, training and resources
Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars such as "Standing Up to Stress" (which discusses the importance of good diet, exercise and sleep) that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.
A wellness programme: Consider a workplace health challenge to get employees moving. If you need help getting started designing a made to measure wellness programme, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.
Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the range of free Alsco Heart Health posters that encourage staff in healthy workplace practices.
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