Hormones and habits - why stress affects our weight

Ever wondered how stress can widen your waistline?


Marianna Kilburn
@MariannaKilburn


16 June 2015

Stress and our weight

Why is it that just as the pressure rises and we want and need life to get easier, stress is also messing up the way we dress? Either clothes are getting claustrophobic and we just can't squeeze into them or worry is awakening the withering waif within!

Why does stress impact our weight and what can we do about it?

Hormones

Stress sends our endocrine system into an eddy, triggering hormones left, right and centre to deal with the perceived threat. Whilst some of these hormones decrease as the stressor dissipates, cortisol levels can remain high in the body even after the stress has calmed down. High cortisol levels can stimulate appetite so the body can replenish the energy that has been burnt up under stress.

In the past when fight or flight meant fleeing from a physical threat, we would have run away and reduced our cortisol levels naturally. These days we are more likely to feel the increased hunger instead, increase our food intake and forget to burn up the calories.

The quickest way to replenish muscles and energy after fight or flight has been triggered is through the intake of sugar. With so many fast foods available now, we are more likely to be tempted to tuck into quick fixes such as biscuits, cake, chocolate and alcohol rather than reach for sources of sugar that supply steady energy such as low GI, whole grains and high fibre foods.

To move the sugar from our blood to our muscles requires insulin and high levels of sugar and insulin set the stage for the body to store fat. High levels of cortisol can also slow down the metabolism making it harder to burn up the food we do consume. The result? Weight gain and often an increase of fat around the middle.

This response can vary from person to person and while one person may find themselves feeling hungry under stress others may feel full and even nauseous at the thought of eating. They are more likely to skip meals, suffer the anxiety and low energy of blood sugar crashes, become nutrient deficient and have a withering waist!

Now for the good news: Whether your urge to eat is driven by hormones or habits or a combination of both, there are ways to interrupt the cycle, break the stress and help prevent the weight gain (or loss!)

My tips to help ease stress and lessen its impact on your waistline

Exercise

Exercise is a wonderful tool for counteracting stress hormones, burning calories, rebalancing blood sugar and insulin and controlling cravings.

That said, be sure to pace yourself with moderate exercise that you enjoy such as walking, yoga, swimming etc. Too much taxing exercise can increase cortisol levels.

Relax

Relaxation is key to improving both our hormones and our habits. Where, when and how do you feel most relaxed? Do more of it! Whether it is out in nature, in meditation, reading a book or being creative. Seek peace and calm and not only will you feel better, your waistline might thank you too.

Sleep

Make sleep a priority. The impact (or lack) of sleep on habits and hormones should not be underestimated. If you struggle with good sleep take a look at the A.Vogel Sleep Blog, which is packed full of helpful sleep better tips and advice.

The combination of Valerian and Hops has traditionally been used for helping sleep disturbances and improving quality of sleep. You may find our natural sleep remedy Dormeasan beneficial.

Taken just half an hour before bedtime, it can help if you worry that you can't sleep - encouraging a more natural sleep, helping you sleep better and wake feeling refreshed.

Speak up and problem solve

Find ways to tackle the stress. Whether you talk to a colleague at work, a friend, a family member, a counsellor, a support group or a life coach, do get support.

When we are in the midst of stress we can be our own worst enemies and not see the wood for the trees. If we can discuss the challenge to an objective person with a fresh perspective we are more likely to solve the problem.

Habits

While stress hormones are wreaking havoc on weight, changing our biochemistry and increasing or decreasing our appetites, our habits are also adding their impact. We might lack the time, energy or motivation to eat well, to cook, to eat at all or to even think about food. We might crave carbs, binge on bacon, chill out on chocolate or fill up on fat!

The foods we resort to under pressure often create emotional eating habits. Once a habit is established, we associate the food with feeling better and are more likely to reach for it again.

It won't surprise you that it is often either skipping meals or consuming the less healthy, high calorie food that satiates the stress symptoms resulting in weight loss or weight gain. While restriction of calories may seem like a good plan this puts the body under extra stress and can also increase the appetite and mess up the metabolism.

Other detrimental habits include missing breakfast and eating late. Our body is designed to digest at its best capacity during the earlier part of the day, burning up calories while we are still moving about and active.

Our digestive system slows down in the evening so eating a big meal too late (as well as increasing our alcohol intake after a long day) increases the likelihood of weight gain and also disrupts sleep.

When we disrupt sleep we not only interfere with the stress hormones but an overtired brain is more likely to reach for the emotional comfort of food cravings. The hormones and habits kick into action again and the chance of weight gain is doubled.

And finally, if we notice that we consistently crave specific foods we could be suffering with a food intolerance, particularly if the craving is accompanied by feeling fat, lethargic, tired and bloated.

Certain foods can trigger a chemical sensitivity causing biochemical imbalances within the body. In this instance foods are not digested, broken down and eliminated properly and a typical symptom is weight gain (as well as water retention, IBS type symptoms, tiredness, rashes and food cravings). If you suspect food intolerances speak to your GP initially to refer you to a dietician for tests or, consult an independent nutritionist.

Water

Keep hydrated with fresh water. Sometimes we can mistake hunger for thirst. It is so important to drink plenty of water when we are under stress (and at all other times too!). If we maintain our water levels we often counteract the feelings of hunger and craving.

Herbs and vitamins

There is nothing quite like stress to deplete our vitamin and mineral levels.

Our nervous system loses magnesium, B vitamins, zinc and vitamin C easily when we are under pressure and requires these for optimum function. Do keep your levels topped up either through food sources or in supplement form.

Chromium can help stabilise blood sugar levels and if you are tempted by tasty titbits try Craving Essence to curb the emotional need. Helpful herbs such as Avena Sativa can help ease the pressure of mild stress over the longer term, while Stress Relief Daytime may create a sense of calm in more chaotic times.

If you feel your metabolism has become a little slow and sluggish you may benefit from a course of Kelp, but please seek medical advice first if you suffer from thyroid dysfunction.

Food/mood diary

Try keeping a note of the foods you reach for under stress and the effect they have. It can be useful to discover stressful eating patterns. Unless we are aware of our self sabotaging patterns we cannot take action to improve them.

Balanced diet

Stress can play havoc with emotions and mood and this in turn can lead to poor food choices and bad dietary habits. A good rule is to eat a rainbow (with a variety of fruits and vegetables of all colours) and include a wide range of food groups (protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats etc.) to maintain blood sugar balance.

If snacking leads you to bad habits, stick to 3 meals a day. If you need to eat little and often, keep healthy snacks to hand such as nuts and seeds, oat cakes, fruit etc. Keep foods that lead you to bad habits away from home and away from work and don't skip meals, especially breakfast.

Managing cravings

If you are troubled by food cravings try distracting yourself instead. Get up and go out for a walk, phone a friend, focus on something you love to do or simply keep a stock of healthy foods around you instead.

For more ideas on how to change your food habits see this previous blog post '7 suggestions for changing stressful eating habits'. And for a tasty and nutritious treat, how about a smoothie instead of a sweet snack? A combination of fruits and vegetables can be a great way to stay fuller for longer whilst treating the body to a wide range of beneficial nutrients.

Stress less Smoothie Recipe

Wish away worry and watch your waistline with this tasty smoothie recipe...

Stress less Smoothie

Ingredients:

  • Handful of spinach (1 cup a day provides 40% of the body's magnesium RDA)
  • Handful of blueberries and strawberries (rich in stress busting vitamin C, antioxidants and filling fibre)
  • Half a peach (more antioxidants as well as B vitamins and vitamin C)
  • A few almonds (healthy fats, B12 and zinc)
  • A few slices of cucumber (cools the body and helps secrete stress hormones)
  • Coconut water to maximum level on the blender (very low in fat, rich in nutrients and great for rehydration)

Method:

Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth, then serve and enjoy.

Liked this and want more tasty smoothie recipes and other healthy food inspiration? Visit A.Vogel Talks Food and explore lots of delicious recipes, healthy eating advice, instruction videos, how to's and much more!

I would love to hear if you try this smoothie or if you have found any other 'good-for-you' comfort foods which don't impact the waistline. Please let me know in the comment section below...

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AvenaCalm - Avena sativa tincture for mild stress and anxiety

50ml

£ 10.50

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Licensed fresh herb tincture of AvenaCalm Avena sativa for mild stress and anxiety.
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