Harsh, but true. Unmanaged stress makes it impossible to lose weight. Stress is unavoidable, but how you react to it can literally save your life and….make it back into those skinny jeans by Spring.
Just what exactly is this thing we call stress? Everyone talks about it. Being stressed seems to be the new normal. Some stress is good. It gets us going, motivated towards a goal and able to rise to certain physical and emotional challenges. This is called “Eustress”. Most of us don’t seem to have difficulty with that kind of stress. We are more likely to stumble around in a constant state of ‘Distress” which is bad stress and that’s what gets us in trouble and keeps the scale moving up. We tend to always think of stress as a ‘feeling’ or a kind of nervous condition that we experience, but it’s actually a real physiological reaction that occurs inside our body. Stress is a physiological adaptive SURVIVAL response in our bodies that gave our ancestors a means of running away from saber tooth tigers and back to the safety of our cozy caves. Run fast, don’t get eaten, survive. The thing is, we aren’t running away from tigers these days, but our bodies still are programed this way and when we ruminate, remember, or dredge up old bad memories and arguments, or worry about the future in any way, this response kicks in- immediately flooding our bodies with enough excess energy reserves and stimulation to high tail it back to our non-existent caves! But we aren’t usually sprinting away from something, so those excess energy reserves need to get stored; somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ is typically right on our bellies.
Here’s how stress works in very simple terms. Stress begins in the Brain with incoming messages of threat or danger or the psychological memories of anger/trauma/upset or the WORRY about future events. Stress happens within the realm of the Autonomic Nervous System ( think-“Automatic”) which rules involuntary bodily functions like breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, and the dilation/constriction of blood vessels. The ANS has 2 branches- The Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. ‘Stress’ is activated by the sympathetic nervous system. This ‘stress response’ can be called into play when we experience anything that threatens us in any way- either real or imagined. It could be emotional, physical, nutritional, environmental or even the pangs of spiritual disconnection. What happens next is an orchestration of both hormonal and chemical messengers.
- Heart rate, blood pressure and lung capacity increase in order to maximize your blood flow
and oxygen to the muscles…..(so you can run away from the tiger)
- Blood glucose, blood fats, cholesterol and triglycerides increase to ready a supply of energy…..(so you can run away from the tiger and get back to your cave)
- Immune function is suppressed…(not necessary- you need to run away from the tiger)
- Your digestion shuts down while you increase your glucose and fat utilization to ready a supply of energy….. (considered an irrelevant function in the face of a threat)
- Your nervous system is ignited in order to ensure the intake of all peripheral dangers, your eyes dilate and you begin to sweat.
- Blood platelets become stickier as blood clotting ability is increased in the event that your body is wounded- (think tiger bite)
- Your hair stands on end as your pores close up to protect any invasion of your skin.
- Male and Female Reproductive Systems are inhibited (really….what’s more important- survival or reproduction?)
This orchestration of physiological responses affects every cell in the human body.
So, how exactly does it make you fat?
OK, let me gather up you worriers, caffeine addicts, over-exercisers, sweet tooth Sallies and stressaholics that can’t seem to lose weight no matter what you do. This is how the stress response overwhelms all of your efforts to lose weight!
- When activated, the stress response keeps a continually high level of blood sugar coursing through you veins. Think about it. The survival mechanism that prepares your muscles to be able to sprint and make it to your cave is what’s at work here. High blood sugar levels provoke high insulin levels because it is insulin that shuttles the glucose/sugar into your muscles and liver cells for energy, stamina and life. Your muscle tissue actually has little doors- called receptors. Insulin holds the keys to these doors and unlocks the receptor to let glucose in for energy. With chronic stress you are constantly elevating your blood sugar and it rides high all the time. So tons of glucose (sugar) is being shuttled around by insulin, knocking on those muscle cell doors screaming ‘Let me in!”. But the muscles get stuffed; so stuffed that they cannot take any more. They lock the doors. The muscle cells become overstuffed- so full they can’t take any more in. This is known as ‘insulin resistance” and can be a precursor to diabetes. Since the muscles refuse to open their doors to the glucose- guess where insulin is forced to ‘take’ it? Yup, you guessed it- right over to your fat cells to stuff them up (they like that feeling- they don’t mind having more at all!)
- The stress response activates cortisol production. Think of cortisol as the commander in chief of the stress response in your body. It is cortisol that dictates all of the organ systems responses for ‘fight or flight’. The stress response causes the adrenal glands to release both epinephrine (adrenaline) and CORTISOL. Thinking like a good military chief, cortisol wants your body to always be prepared in these emergency situations (even if you are just sitting in traffic and stressing about being late.) Captain C needs a good storage area and strategically targets your belly. It has all the makings for a great point of reserve. Not only does it have a great supply of blood vessels (to shuttle fats in and out) but the central fat cells that are deep in the abdominal visceral area have 4x the amount of cortisol receptor sites than the fat cells beneath the skin. Location, location, location…….it makes sense that Commander Cortisol orders our bodies to store fat in the abdominal area (toxic fat)
- When we are stressed, chemical messengers called “catecholamines” are also released. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine(adrenaline) are the main catecholamines. They raise heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscles strength, mental alertness, increase blood flow to brain, heart and kidneys. (think big tiger again) If stress goes on (and on and on….) the body will attempt to counter their release with feel good chemical messengers like serotonin. Serotonin is our natural calm, feel good neurotransmitter. Serotonin works to try and balance the nervous system- attempting to regulate and maintain homeostasis while the chaos of stress runs rampant. It tries to put the brakes on our sympathetic nervous system. But it simply cannot keep up with chronic stress. If Stress persists, serotonin levels drain and deplete. When serotonin levels crash we feel awful- sad, depressed, in need of something to make us feel better. The work of Judith Wurtman (MIT) revealed that eating sugary sweets will cause a quick spike in serotonin levels. That’s why we naturally gravitate towards sweets when we are feeling blue or when we are feeling stressed. The problem is sugary sweets create a temporary spike and surge. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last; it crashes and burns out like paper on a fire. This becomes a cycle of emotional eating- a soothing technique. We experience ‘stress’ (traffic, arguments, worry), serotonin levels dip due to the ramping up of the catecholines and we then grab something sweet to upload our serotonin. It’s a natural reaction to give our bodies what it needs at the moment- glucose to keep Commander Cortisol happy and serotonin production to plug up the drain we are experiencing. It may come as a surprise, but 95% of our serotonin is made in our gut; and we need to fuel serotonin production with a MIX of healthy carbohydrates, fats and protein to provide a steady supply of it. This is why things like low-fat dieting, extremely low calorie dieting and even over exercising (a stressor) can lead to low levels of serotonin with subsequent depression and moodiness and weight gain.
So if you’re stewing about that last email from your boss or worrying about that report due tomorrow, kids, aging parents or financial preparedness or even just sitting in traffic or some other infuriating episode; think about what’s happening.
There are a multitude of ways to manage stress (coming up next in this series) but one of my favorites is sweet and simple.
Take a deep breath. Period.
Do it again and again until the moment passes. A deep abdominal breath will activate the vagus nerve. This vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and it is the nerve that triggers the Relaxation Response (the opposite of the stress response). Igniting the parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on the stress response- fast.
This is just one of many avenues for stress reduction. It is typically the emotional residue of past episodes of stress that has rewired our brains and systems to store fat. No amount of dieting or exercise will fix that. Working with someone like an experienced Whole Health Educator and Coach can help you work through the emotional, nutritional, environmental and physical issues that impede your way to your weight loss goals. Using evidenced based EDUCATION and introducing you to various modalities will help return you to your natural state of calm and balance so that dieting and exercise CAN work to create your BEST you. I use biofeedback, essential oils, and many different evidenced based techniques.
If you think of losing weight as simply a math problem (calories in-calories out) you will be continually disappointed with your results. Stress Management is crucial to the battle of the bulge.
Hugs & Health,