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Stress: The missing link

Ashley Lucas

If you’ve decided to take control of your health and drop those extra pounds, you’ve probably already implemented a diet and exercise regime.

It’s no secret that our bodies respond to what we take in as well as what we put out. But if you’ve followed this formula, and are still struggling to drop weight, you may want to consider another factor – stress.

In times of stress, the body releases cortisol, a hormone responsible for our body’s flight-or-fight response. In this state, many bodily functions, including the metabolism, are slowed or even paused. Energy is diverted to the muscles and the brain, giving us a biochemical survival technique to “ready us for battle.” To make up for the energy being spent in these locations, cortisol will then cause an increase in cravings for sweet and salty foods. While this may have been helpful for our ancestors living in more dangerous environments, this mechanism today tends to impede our health, rather than help us.

In our modern, fast-paced world, stress is a growing epidemic. It takes its form in many ways including mental, emotional, physical and even chemical stress (usually because of the pollutants in our environment). Continuous high states of stress do not only cause problems for weight loss, but can come at a high cost to our health overall. Some of the common implications of stress include:

  • Lowered immunity
  • Sluggish digestion
  • Adrenal and metabolic fatigue
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Development of chronic disease
  • Depression, anxiety and irritability
  • Other issues surrounding the dysfunction of body systems, such as cardiovascular, neurological and musculoskeletal systems.

While this is quite a daunting laundry list, many of these implications can be reduced, and even reversed with proper stress-management techniques. So how do we mitigate our body’s stress response and live happier, healthier lives?

To answer this question, first let’s look at the actions we can take to relieve stress in our day to day.

  • Make time to relax. It’s easy to fill a calendar with back-to-back meetings and appointments. Instead of giving all of this time and energy away to others, schedule a daily appointment with yourself. Try penciling yourself into your own calendar for at least 30 minutes a day dedicated to just you. For some, this time could include things like listening to a guided meditation, reading a good book or taking a detoxifying bath with Epsom salts (a great way to also get the stress-lowering effects of magnesium). For others, it could be as simple as taking deep breaths or spending time in nature. Whatever it is you do, treat this appointment with yourself with as much importance as you would any other.
  • Nurture your relationships. We all need human connection. When we take the time to spend with a loved one, we not only lower our stress, but produce more dopamine. If distance is an issue, a simple phone call could do wonders. Sharing the details of your life with someone you admire and trust will help you let go of that which weighs on you. If you aren’t able to speak to a friend in this way, it may be beneficial to speak to a counselor.
  • Get regular exercise and sleep. Exercise doesn’t just improve your physical health, it will lower cortisol levels. Getting just 30 minutes a day of movement can have a great impact on reducing stress. In addition, get adequate sleep to help regulate your body’s stress response. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Nutrition also plays a role in the way your body handles stress. Eat a nutrient-rich diet of whole foods that are high in antioxidants to help lower the impact of stress of the body. For example, many foods with hues of blues, reds and dark greens typically contain higher levels of antioxidants. Not sure which foods to choose? Aim to get a variety of foods rich in color, get a lot of protein and let go of the sugar.

Stress management is not just critical for our weight loss journey, but our health overall. Though not always easy, changing the way we think, as well as the way we navigate our lives, will have the most positive impact on reducing stress. We can’t always control our environment, but we can change the way we react to it. So, if you’ve been trying to drop weight to no avail, manage the stress in your life. I’m confident that your health and quality of life will significantly improve!

Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist. She is the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133.