Stress can significantly impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight. It can also prevent you from losing weight. Whether it's the result of high levels of the stress hormones cortisol, unhealthy stress-induced behaviours, or a combination of the two, the link between stress and weight gain is glaring.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone naturally produced by your body. Created by the adrenal glands located on your kidneys, cortisol is released when you're under stress. This sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily pausing regular bodily functions and slowing your metabolism. While this hormone is essential to survive, it can become harmful in excess amounts.
How cortisol can lead to weight gain
Cortisol stimulates your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, creating a surge of energy in your body while this process is essential for survival situations, it also increases your appetite. Additionally, elevated cortisol levels can cause cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods. This means you're more likely to indulge in French fries and milkshakes than a well-being meal.
An excess of cortisol can lead your body to produce less testosterone. This may cause a decrease in muscle mass, as well as slow down how many calories your body burns.
Cortisol and metabolism
Even if you aren't eating foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol also slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.
In 2015, researchers interviewed women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. After finishing the meal, scientists measured the women's metabolism rate (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and examined their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol.
The researchers found that, on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This could result in an 11-pound weight gain in one year. Stressed women also had higher insulin levels, a hormone that contributes to fat storage.
Stress-induced unhealthy habits
In addition to the hormonal change related to stress, stress can also drive you to engage in the following unhealthy behaviours, all of which can cause weight gain.
1. Emotional eating
Increased levels of cortisol can not make you crave unhealthy food, but excess nervous energy can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. You might find that snacking or reaching for a second helping provides you with some temporary relief from your stress but makes healthy weight management more difficult.
2. Eating fast food
When we are stressed, and not planning, we tend to eat the first thing we can see or what is readily available and accessible, which is not always the healthiest option. You may also be more likely to drive through a fast-food place, rather than taking the time and mental energy to cook a balanced, healthy meal.
3. Skipping meals
When you are juggling a dozen things at once, eating a healthy meal can drop down in the list of priorities. You might find yourself skipping breakfast because you're running late or not eating lunch be there's just too much on your to-do list.
4. Sleeping less
Many people report trouble sleeping when they're stressed. And research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism. Feeling over-tired can also reduce willpower and contribute to unhealthy eating habits.
The risk of stress and weight gain
When stress peaks or become difficult to manage, more serious, long-term health-related consequences can occur. Depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, and obesity are all linked to untreated chronic stress.
The risk associated with weight gain include:
1. High blood pressure
3. Heart disease
5. Reproductive problems
6. A decrease in lung and respiratory function
7. An increase in joint pain
9. Digestive issues
10. Sleep deprivation
11. Cognitive impairment
Additionally, there's evidence of a connection between obesity and certain cancers such as pancreatic, esophageal, colon, breast, and kidney cancer.
Finally, your mental health can take a hit. An increase in anxiety or depression can also happen when you unintentionally gain weight.
Ways to reduce stress
Stress affects all of us at some point. Some people may experience it multiple times a day. While others may only notice it when it begins to interfere with daily tasks.
When you're feeling stressed, there are several small steps you can take to calm down, including:
1. Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes
2. Get outdoors and enjoy nature
3. Cultivate social support
4. Nourish your body with healthy foods
5. Eliminate one item on your to-do list
6. Take a 10-minute yoga break
7. Practice mindfulness medication
8. Listen to music
9. Practice 10 minutes of deep breathing
10 ignore the caffeine and alcohol.
Treatment for stress-related weight gain
Treating and managing stress-related weight gain starts with a visit to your doctor's office to discuss your concerns. After a thorough exam, they'll rule out any other health issues and help you come up with a plan to manage your weight and reduce stress.
In addition to implementing the stress-busting steps listed above, your doctor may recommend working with a registered dietitian (RD) that specializes in stress and weight loss. An RD can help you develop a balanced nutrition plan that fits your needs.
Your doctor may also suggest working with a psychologist or therapist to develop strategies to manage your stress.
And finally, your doctor may also talk with you about medication if your stress is related to chronic anxiety or depression.
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