For years, research has revealed that stress significantly impacts our bodies and our health; from a metabolic standpoint stress impacts our body’s ability to achieve peak health.
For example, you can eat the healthiest foods (and not much of them), but if your body is chronically stressed, if you carry significant anxiety and worry, specific hormones will be released that, in many of us, won’t allow us to lose the weight we want.
Here’s the deal: When we have high levels of stress, our cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted during a flight-or-fight scenario. It prepares the body for the stressful event by stimulating our system to flood it with glucose, raising our blood sugar levels. This action supplies the large muscles of the body with the fuel it needs to “escape” whatever is coming after it. This is helpful in an acute situation, say, if you need to run away from a predator – but the issue comes into play when we are chronically stressed and anxious.
Cortisol, through a complex cascade in the body, impacts our blood sugar regulating system. With high cortisol, blood sugar is elevated, insulin is affected and we have increased risk of insulin resistance and thus Type 2 diabetes. Elevated cortisol levels also increase hunger signals sent to the brain. We find ourselves constantly hungry with cravings specifically for carbohydrate rich, high calorie foods. This type of food elevates our blood sugar levels even more and pushes the body to secrete more insulin.
Insulin, in very simple terms, is an anabolic, inflammatory hormone that promotes fat-storage. We do not want high insulin levels. In a sense, insulin pushes fat into the fat tissues, then shuts and locks the door so the fat can’t be mobilized and burned easily. All the while, cortisol mobilizes triglycerides from storage in your fat cells throughout the body and relocates this fat to the belly area, storing it as visceral fat.
Visceral fat is a beast of its own. These fat cells in your abdomen are metabolically active and secrete a whole host of inflammatory hormones that negatively impact your health. This belly fat is like a tumor with its own agenda, and all it wants to do is get “fatter” as fast as possible. Visceral fat cells not only secrete more cortisol at the tissue level, they also secrete aromatase, a hormone that decreases testosterone in men and increases estrogen in both men and women (simultaneously significantly increasing breast cancer risk), and interleukin-6, which is an inflammatory hormone linked to cancer and heart disease, and impacts hunger and full hormones, making you hungrier with intense cravings.
What a cascade of unfortunate events! When we are stressed and unable to surrender or let go of these stress events and thoughts, we get locked into a cycle – a cycle of hormonal secretions that stimulate hunger, cravings and inflammation along with a metabolism that defaults into fat-storage rather than fat-burn.
Understanding the body connection in regard to stress is important as it is directly correlated with our ability to maintain a healthy weight and supportive habits. Here are a few tactics to use if you feel stress has got its hold on you:
- Journal. Write about your experiences and whatever is stressing you. Purge all of your thoughts and then rewrite the story so that it highlights your strengths, your values and what you gained from the experience.
- Practice meditation and express gratitude. Research shows that a consistent meditation and gratitude practice improves immune and cognitive function. Start your morning with 10 minutes for yourself in which you can sit quietly and finish with expressing three things for which you are grateful.
- Find a support team. Did you know that 95% of diets we do on our own fail? This in and of itself increases our stress levels. Dropping weight successfully is difficult and the process can be complicated. It’s OK to ask for help and to seek an outside perspective. You shouldn’t expect that you can do it on your own. The most successful people in the world have coaches to help them optimize aspects of their lives; optimizing our health and weight is no different.
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.