Chronic stress causes weight gain. “Oh great!” you think. “Now I’ll stress out because stress causes weight gain. How can I ever get out of this cycle?”
Stress causes a gain in abdominal fat. Abdominal fat causes specific chemical signals (hormones) that lead to lower metabolism and a craving for sweets. This in turn leads to even more weight gain which causes more emotional stress.
Our Bodies Are Designed to Protect Us
Your body is programmed to keep you alive. Your stress reaction is meant to protect you. When your mind senses danger, it causes two key hormones to be released into your bloodstream – adrenaline and cortisol. Each of these hormones cause a series of other hormones to be released, which trigger specific stress responses in your body.
Adrenaline prepares you to be able to take action. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure elevates, and the supply of energy to your muscles is increased.
Cortisol increases blood sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissue. It is assumed that if you get in a fight for your life situation, you are going to expend a lot of energy.
After fighting or fleeing your body will need to replenish its energy. “Energy” to your body means glucose, or blood sugar. Thus, part of cortisol’s job is to make you desire high-energy (high calorie) foods – foods that will be absorbed into the bloodstream as quickly as possible. After all, this is an emergency situation.
Table sugar (sucrose) is absorbed into the bloodstream almost immediately (see post). Cortisol will cause you to desire high carbohydrate foods such as doughnuts, sugar filled soda drinks, coffee with sugar or other foods containing sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
To get the glucose from our bloodstream into the cells of muscles requires insulin. Insulin is the hormone that opens the gates to our cells and lets in the blood sugar. Cortisol makes sure insulin is released into the bloodstream.
Physical Stress or Emotional Stress – It Doesn’t Matter
We experience two types of stress. There is stress caused by real threats that require a physical response and there is stress caused by perceived thoughts. The body’s response is the same.
There is plenty of physical stress in our daily lives. There are riptides that turn a pleasant day at the beach into a horrific experience where we literally need to fight for our lives; there are tornadoes that strike almost without warning; fights and riot’s breakout between spectators at sporting events; and, there is road rage and other types of antagonism that turn into real physical attacks. We need adrenaline and cortisol for our survival.
Our hormone system doesn’t know if the threat is real or imagined. It only responds to our emotions.
The constant stress of emotional pressures and demands of our everyday lives cause us to feel anxiety, frustration, anger, and tension. These emotions cause our bodies to respond as if we are about to be harmed.
Unlike physical stress, emotional stress does not end. It is continual. Cortisol continues to flow in the bloodstream as if you were in a constant state of physical danger.
Emotional Stress Makes You Fat
The constant flow of cortisol in your bloodstream will:
- slow your metabolism so you won’t burn energy. The body is being told to conserve and store energy in case you need to fight or flee again.
- create cravings for fatty, salty, sugary processed foods which will enter the bloodstream quickly.
- cause swings in blood sugar levels – blood sugar highs followed by blood sugar lows.
- effect where fat is stored. High levels of chronic stress are linked to greater amounts of abdominal fat.
You Can Escape The Emotional Stress Weight Gain Cycle
There are many effective stress management techniques such as yoga, Tai chi, deep breathing, prayer, and meditation. However, the two most important ways to handle chronic stress are:
- Maintain a positive mood and control the thoughts you dwell upon. Your emotions or mood (positive or negative) create hormones that cascade throughout your body.
- Exercise. Exercise is one of the best ways to burn off glucose that is in the bloodstream and to keep it from being stored as fat. Exercise also produces a variety of biochemicals (hormones) that counteract the negative effect of stress hormones. Exercise helps control insulin and blood sugar levels.
- When you are under emotional stress you will find it hard to maintain a healthy diet..
- You will crave high carbohydrate foods in a desire to replenish energy and store it for the next battle.
- You will have a tendency to store fat in the abdominal area (belly fat). Abdominal fat is linked to higher health risks such as cancer, immune suppression, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, loss of memory, and many other chronic diseases.
- Chronic stress is a reaction to circumstances. You may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction.
What lifestyle changes will you take to eliminate chronic stress from your life?