stress and weight loss

We encounter stress every day and they are just at about every turn you make whether you like it or not. We get stressed today from financial problems, looming deadlines, pressure at the workplace, as well as from emotional and personal issues relating to family and relationships.

A large majority of people especially in Western countries are literally living their lives from day to day with a high degree of stress, often without even realizing it, and the enormous toll it has on both their physical and mental health.

Naturally, the human body has several naturally evolved mechanisms of "hardwired responses" or "programmed physiological responses" for handling stressful situations. Most of it was developed in order for humans to survive during prehistoric times when they were mostly just hunter-gatherers. Stress was therefore not only useful but also necessary for survival.

Humans as hunter-gatherers needed to have greater physical strength from the adrenaline rush, the subsequent energy boost, sharper vision as well as hearing, and the heighten brain functions usually triggered by the body’s "fight-or-flight" mode in response to a stress stimulus – whether it be internal or external in nature.

However, most of the programming responses of the body were designed to handle stress-related stimulus that were temporal (short-lived) and not prolonged or long-term in nature. The heightened physical and hormonal responses of a stress reaction were experienced during periods of real physical danger by our ancestors. The energy generated in response to the fight-or-flight stimulus was immediately expended in handling the problem, thus effectively clearing the body of the stress hormones secreted and the body subsequently returning to its normal physiological state.

Unfortunately, most of the stresses we are faced with today are more primarily psychological in nature than physical making it far more difficult to easily put away by an immediate singular response or action.

How then does stress actually cause weight gain?

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The truth is that whether the stress is physical or psychological, it exacts a negative effect on the body in general. When stressed or in a chronic low-grade stage of emergency – a "fight-or-flight" response mode, the body undergoes changes in endocrine secretions such as increases in circulating epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepineprhine, and more importantly, the stress hormone known as cortisol.

The secretion of the catecholamines – epinephrine and norepineprhine increases heart rate, blood pressure, as well as thermogenesis which cause the release of fat and glucose as energy fuels to help the body salvage the situation and responding with the appropriate physical response. When the stimulus or crisis subsides, cortisol becomes active and stimulates the appetite so that the body can replenish its fat stores.

Cortisol ensures that the body has fuel sources in forms that it can easily convert into sugar to meet the body’s required energy demands during times of a fight-or-flight response. The preferred choice of fuel is usually carbohydrates since they are more easily absorbed into the bloodstream due to their high glycemic index.

However, when exposed to long-term or sustained stress levels – the way many of us live with unremitting pressure today, this will be reflected in the increased accumulation of cortisol and a myriad of reactions which can occur in the body that can take a huge toll on our overall health and weight. Elevated cortisol levels promote weight gain in three major ways as discussed hereunder.

Increased Food Cravings

Although when we experience temporary stress we tend not to feel hungry, chronic stress on the other hand make us to generally become hungry. As already mentioned above, cortisol is a hormone that ensures the body has enough energy fuel for emergency use and its preferred choice is high glycemic index carbohydrate-containing foods.
This is why when under chronic stress and hungry, people tend to crave junk food like chocolates, cookies, muffins, cakes, sugars, and other sweet and salty foods that they might even be aware are not good for them. Unfortunately, this tendency can easily lead to a vicious cycle of stress, frequent overeating, and weight gain.

Research suggest that this increased food craving when stressed is due to the fact that cortisol turns on a hunger-inducing brain chemical known as neuropeptide Y which is produced in the hypothalamus while on the other hand appearing to decrease the levels of adiponectin, a hormone known to help suppress appetite.

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Blood Sugar Fluctuations

Prolonged stress and cortisol secretion causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to a constant feeling of fatigue, moodiness and lack of overall mental alertness. Research studies indicate that chronic stress generally leads to elevated amounts of cortisol, glucose, and insulin levels in the body.

This is because when chronically stressed, the body goes into a metabolic derangement that hampers normal insulin release and the subsequent removal of sugar from the bloodstream. This results in sugar remaining in the bloodstream for longer periods of time than should normally be the case.

This situation becomes more precarious as insulin secretion further increases in an attempt by the body to desperately rid itself of the excess sugar in the bloodstream ultimately resulting in the body developing insulin resistance – a well known precursor to Type II Diabetes. These sugar fluctuations also poses a lot of risk to the body as it can lead to damage of body tissues and rapid or premature aging which signs including skin deterioration.

Stubborn Belly Fat Storage

Several studies have found that increased level of cortisol tend to cause weight gain especially around the abdominal vs. hip areas of the body. This type of fat deposition is referred to as “toxic fat” because it is strongly associated with the development of heart diseases and stroke. Excess abdominal weight is also a risk factor for diabetes and cancer.

The unusual accumulation of fat in this area of the body is due to the fact that fat cells around the abdomen appear to be very sensitive to cortisol and love to attract it because of the high density of cortisol receptors (sort of chemical magnets that attract particular types of other chemicals) around the abdominal region. This makes the belly a virtual fat factory during periods of chronic stress when there is an unusual elevation of cortisol production in the body.

Once again, it helps to remember that cortisol ensures that the body has sufficient energy fuel for any possible emergency which might explain why there is a natural occurrence of cortisol receptors around the stomach area. Fat around the stomach area can be quickly converted into energy and thus serves as an immediate reserve of excess energy store to ensure survival in times of prolonged stress.

However, the truth of the matter remains that we are bound to get stressed at one time or another. It is therefore important to learn skills and techniques to help you get rid of unnecessary stress whereby you’d be able to make better work, lifestyle, and relationship decisions as well as how to effectively manage unavoidable forms of stress.

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With that said, it is imperative you need to burst that stress in order to improve your chances of shedding those excess body fat, otherwise the body through its "hard wiring" responses is going to do everything possible to hold on to its fat stores – and I guess that by now you know just where cortisol’s choice of fat storage is.

Stress and lack sleep are twin evils that can easily wreck your weight loss efforts. While it is true that stress may cut down on your ability to sleep properly, it is however more important that you ensure you get an adequate night sleep as lack of adequate sleep has been shown to increase the level of cortisol in the body. To help you get started, you should ensure to get at least 7 hours of sound sleep per night.

To also help you burst stress and have better night sleep, you should endeavor to engage in regular physical exercise. This is amazingly the most effective way to lower cortisol levels, decrease stress, boost your metabolism, and shed those extra pounds of fat you’ve always wanted to. Aerobic exercises for instance, can help you effectively increase oxygen circulation thus providing you with a lot of increased energy while also producing endorphins – chemicals that make you feel happy.

Furthermore, it is equally important that you eat healthy foods especially those that have been shown to boost your serotonin levels (another feel good chemical) such as a bowl of warm oatmeal; also a glass of warm skim or low-fat milk just before bedtime can improve your sleep quality; also you might want to have a hot cup of green tea, such as Tava Tea, to help you to not only lose weight but also to soothe and calm your nerves.

While the causes of people being overweight are complex, the link to stress as can be seen from the discussion above cannot be overemphasized especially in the socio-economic quandary we find ourselves today.