[Guest Post by Nicole Noel, editor of HighStyleLife]
What came first, stress or weight gain?
And better still, how to curb both?
For most people, high stress levels are a trigger for appetite changes and increased food intake – and reaching for the cookie jar every time anxiety goes up a notch is a shortcut to extra pounds.
But why do we eat more when exposed to stress, and how can we turn the tables on stress-caused hunger spikes?
Why Stress Makes You Hungry [Video]
Stress: Hidden hazards of survival mechanism
In stressful moments, the body amps release of cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and adrenaline to boost alertness and energy necessary to take action and stay alive.
If stress has a habit of getting out of hand too often or lasting over long periods of time, it can become chronic.
Chronic stress can cause rapid weight gain and a range of health problems, such as diabetes type 2, obesity, hypertension, elevated LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, cardiovascular problems, cancer, anxiety, depression, and mental problems.
But why do we actually reach for food once stress hits the fan?
Replenish and recover: Written in our blood
According to science, the reason behind appetite spikes in times of stress is written in our genes. Stress-caused adrenaline spikes wear off quickly, but cortisol takes longer to return to normal levels, and before it does, it signals our body that it’s time to replenish energy now that danger is gone.
Hunger is, therefore, the natural physiological side-effect of stress, and the reason why most people tend to overeat after nerve-racking experiences.
Nevertheless, Harvard Medical School experts say that the human body doesn’t crave just about any food type to satisfy stress-induced hunger.
After the perceived threat is gone, our nervous system prompts our brain to reach for calorie-high, carbohydrate-rich treats to cover the energy (not) expended in the fight or escape.
If the physical response to stress didn’t involve running or combat, the body transforms carbohydrates consumed within post-stress feasts into fat and stores it in the cells as a ready fuel for future use.
Still, not all fat is created equal, and that’s an even greater problem than weight gain.
Subcutaneous vs. visceral fat: The bigger loser
Fat can show up in the waistline, thighs, and butt, and burning it will require a carefully devised nutrition program and adequate exercise regime.
Still, if you’re struggling to lose weight even with appropriate lifestyle changes, it can be a sign of fat issues far below skin level. In addition to visible (i.e. subcutaneous) fat, rapid weight gain can result in an increased level of visceral (i.e. hidden) fat content.
Visceral fat is stored around organs in the abdominal region, i.e. liver, intestines, and pancreas, and it can disrupt normal organ function and hormonal communications between organs.
In the long run, high hidden fat content can trigger insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated triglyceride levels, cholesterol plaque buildup in the arteries, and a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Visceral fat is difficult to scale accurately, and it requires much more effort to burn than subcutaneous fat even with extensive diet changes.
Preventing weight gain is easier than repairing the damage caused by extra pounds – but how do you stop yourself from succumbing to your natural urge for fattening foods in times of dire stress?
Not giving in: Manage stress to manage weight
Stress management is the easiest and safest preventive measure for unwarranted weight gain, and it’ll save you quite a few health complications down the road.
Here are some of the most efficient techniques to stay on top of your daily stress levels and waistline circumference.
1. Reach out
Coping with emotionally taxing situations is too tough to keep up in the long run. In case you catch yourself acting out of character or detect symptoms of anxiety, moodiness, irritability, or cravings for comfort food, don’t hesitate to seek support from your family, friends and mental health professionals.
A little love and care go a long way in times of stress, and it’s always better to flush anxiety out of your system than to load it on through comfort food that will turn into fat (weight gain is another stressor that can cause guilt and keep the vicious cycle going).
2. Stretch it
Regular training will help stabilize blood sugar, heart rate, and hormonal status, as well as burn off calories and fat, tone your muscles, boost blood flow and nutrient exchange in the cells, and help you increase and/or preserve bone density.
Depending on your age, shape, health status and personal workout preferences, you can sign up for Pilates, yoga, tai-chi, qigong, or you can take up jogging, biking, swimming, strength training, aerobics, or a similar dynamic workout.
3. Stick to the menu
A proper diet plan is the most important point on your stress management list if you’re aiming to prevent weight gain.
Ditch processed ingredients, sugar, refined oil, candy, and carbonated drinks, increase your daily water intake, and structure meals around fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and foods and herbs that promote detoxification.
A balanced diet is integral to long-term wellbeing, so don’t put off the switch to a healthy lifestyle if you want to deal with stress without tipping the scale to overweight.
4. Take a break
When life gets too tough to handle, a time-out can do you more good than any other stress management technique out there.
Traveling to exotic destinations, weekend trips to the countryside, or a visit to a health retreat will allow you to recharge your internal batteries, rest, and engage in activities you enjoy – and all of these are critical for your emotional and physical shape.
A single day spent relaxing in the fresh air, engaging in fun outdoor activities, and indulging your senses in a spa and wellness retreat can extend your stress wick by up to one week.
In case all other stress management tricks fail, take at least a few days off work, family responsibilities and your everyday routine and environment: this is a small price to pay for long-term wellbeing.
Devised to promote relaxation, emotional balance, and improved cognitive function, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing have beneficial effects on health, including stress relief.
According to experts from Santosha Yoga Institute, yoga and meditation can prevent stress-induced food binges and appetite spikes, whereas controlled breathing can help you maintain optimal heart rate and blood pressure caused by stress-related hormonal fluctuations.
Stress is not just a silent killer: it’s a silent eater, too. Meeting daily nutritional needs is essential to long-term wellbeing, and an odd cheat day is okay for as long as you’re in control of your eating habits.
Still, if you indulge in comfort foods every time stress hits the roof, you’ll soon find an ungainly figure of a sugar addict staring back at you from the mirror – and once that happens, the way back to optimal health and waistline may be rocky, long, and thorny one indeed.
Nicole Noel is the editor of High Style Life. High Style Life is a website dedicated to life and all the little pleasures it brings. The way they see it, if you just think about the way you live your life and commit yourself to living it to the fullest, the style will come as a natural extension of your being. The kings and queens of style are usually just people who came close to keeping their lives in perfect balance.
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.