How are stress and weight gain linked?
The physical symptoms of stress alone do not directly cause an increase in weight however emotional symptoms and some hormonal factors certainly have a role to play in stress-related weight gain. When you’re stressed the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released to help keep us alert and able to fend off any threats. However, as beneficial as your stress hormones may be for fighting danger it also promotes the storage of fat, particularly dangerous visceral fat that surrounds vital organs, increases cholesterol and insulin levels which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Your body does this as an evolutionary survival mechanism however, in most cases this can result in some weight gain.
Does stress make us eat more?
Although cortisol can encourage fat storage its primary action is actually to provide energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism designed for quick access to energy sources to be able to respond, fight or run away from stressful threats. While this may seem beneficial in preventing weight gain this process also results in an increased appetite. These elevated stress levels can therefore lead to stress eating or emotional eating resulting in weight gain. This is fine if you’re running away from a bear perhaps but maybe not so good if you’re stressed from work and have been sitting at a desk all day!
Stress can affect us at any age but those who are older tend to be at more risk of gaining weight as a result of stress. Why? Well, as you age your production of muscle-building hormones naturally slows this, in turn, results in fewer calories being burnt meaning that any foods you do consume if you stress eat get worked off slower than they once did.
How to take control of stress eating
Don’t forget to eat! Don’t eat on the go!
Now, I’m not going to bore you with the usual ‘don’t eat sugar’ ‘don’t eat processed foods’ ‘eat fruit and veg’ spiel as I’m sure you already know this and take steps towards having a healthy balanced diet. If, however, you would like some more information and tips on how to improve your diet please check out our blogs ‘What is a healthy diet?’ and ‘The dopamine diet: what is it and can it really make us happier?’
I will say this however, if you’re stressed, make the effort to take time to sit down to regular, nutritious meals. Skipping meals, for example breakfast, can have detrimental effects on our mood as well as our metabolism. In fact, skipping breakfast not only means that your metabolism won’t kick in until later in the day, but you’ll also be more likely to crave sugary, sweet foods later in the day for an energy kick. This happens because you haven’t eaten overnight, breakfast is called the most important meal of the day for a reason! It’s breaking your fast from the night before! If you lead a busy lifestyle preparation is key, there are plenty of nutritious and quick-to-make recipes out there. For some inspiration please check out our recipe hub where we post tasty recipes weekly!
Get some sleep
As I explore in my blog ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat?’ poor sleep can have a direct impact on how much you eat the next day with research suggesting that those who don’t get enough sleep consume up to 300 extra calories and twice as much fat the next day than someone who manages to get the recommended 8 hours!1 Poor sleep can impact our hormones too causing our levels of ghrelin (the hormone that stimulates hunger cravings) to become elevated and leptin, our natural appetite suppressor will start to decline.2
Now, getting a good night’s sleep when we’re stressed is often easier said than done. If your body is producing a stress reaction, that is producing cortisol and adrenaline, in the run up to bedtime the chances are you’ll feel too alert to get a proper night’s sleep. Check out my blog for more information on ‘How to overcome stress for a better night’s rest.’
Watch the caffeine
Note that I say watch the caffeine here not cut it out entirely; in fact, coffee could even have beneficial effects on our stress levels. As I discuss in my blog ‘Is a cup of coffee the answer to less stress?’ research has emerged that coffee’s effect on brain chemistry not only keeps us alert but could also potentially affect neurotransmitters in the brain to help you fight off the symptoms of stress. One study reported that while caffeine blocks adenosine receptors from activating sleep processes, it also prevents receptors from reacting to and causing a stress response such as a bad mood, memory problems and the likelihood of depression.3
However, like anything it’s important to keep moderation in mind. Drinking excessive amounts of caffeine can cause health issues like diarrhoea, indigestion and heartburn. What’s more, drinking large amounts of coffee continuously can make your body reliant on this source of energy rather than on natural sources. Caffeine is a diuretic which causes more frequent urination and can remove our essential minerals and nutrients.
Choosing not to drink coffee won’t have negative consequences on our health but, unfortunately, drinking too much might. So if you do decide to drink coffee make sure that you don’t over-indulge, ideally we should aim to drink no more than 400 mg of caffeinated coffee a day, that roughly amounts to the amount brewed in 4 coffees. Caffeine free teas are widely available and can have a variety of health benefits such as digestive support, relaxation and detoxification. Alternatively, why not try our caffeine-free coffee alternative Bambu which contains 100% natural and organically grown ingredients?
Support your metabolism
When it comes to difficulties with losing weight it is easy to declare that slow metabolism is the culprit. However, weight gain is a complicated process, and although it’s tempting to blame excess weight on your metabolism, this isn’t always the case. A combination of many factors including genes, diet, sleep, physical activity and stress can all play a role in our weight and metabolic rate.
It’s true that metabolism is connected to weight control although it’s only part of the whole picture. Boosting your metabolism alone won’t be enough to help you to lose weight – the age old ways of having a balanced diet and regular exercise are still the best ways. However, if you feel you need a bit of metabolic support kelp is one supplement you might consider turning to.
Kelp contains iodine which is essential for the manufacture of thyroid hormones. These hormones are responsible for supporting our metabolism, energy levels and also our weight management. Kelp is one of the richest dietary sources of iodine. Kelp can also boost overall nutrition and health since it is full of amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Made from naturally occurring Pacific Sea Kelp and rich in naturally occurring iodine our Kelp tablets can help you when you’re feeling sluggish or if you have slow metabolism and need a little bit of extra support.
Take time to relax
This is perhaps the most important tip I give – when we’re stressed it is so, so important to give yourself down time to relax and de-stress! Do what makes you happy whether it’s going for a bath, reading a book, seeing friends or something else schedule it in – I’m being serious, write it into your calendar right now! – and make time for it regularly. Do a small de-stressing action at least once every single day and try to treat yourself to a bigger relaxation treat at least once a week.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for the body and for weight loss, but it is also one of the most beneficial ways for looking after your mental health too. Exercise has been scientifically proven to help reduce stress as well as lower levels of depression and anxiety. When we exercise endorphins are released from the pituitary gland because our brain recognises exercise a form of physical stress. These endorphins help to relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria.
Exercise tends to make us breathe deeper, which triggers the body's relaxation response. Physical exertion means we have to focus on the body and how we are moving it, which in turn distracts the mind from stress and worry. In combination with healthy eating, exercise is one of the best methods to help us lose weight. A little goes a long way too, walking just 40 minutes has been scientifically proven to help reduce your risk of heart failure!4
Don’t ignore it – get some help!
If we don’t acknowledge our stress we can wind up feeling 10 times worse! That’s why it’s important to tackle emotional eating and stress head on! Don’t use food as an emotional crutch to prevent you from dealing with your stress, there is plenty of advice, support and people who feel like you out there so don’t be afraid to reach out.
Talking out your problems with friends, family, colleagues and medical professionals can help you to tackle your stress head on. If stress-related weight gain is getting you down try reaching out to a nutritional therapist who can help you to spot potential problem areas as well as nurture a healthier attitude towards food.
4 Rasla S, Lin X, El Meligy A, et al. Association of walking pace, walking frequency, and duration and joint effects on the risk of heart failure in postmenopausal women. Program and abstracts of the American College of Cardiology 2018 Scientific Sessions; March 10-12, 2018; Orlando, Florida. Presentation number 1315M-03.