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Is stress affecting your weight?

Many of us know that there is a link between stress and weight management. Some people gain weight when stressed and some lose it. And those that gain weight, tend to increase fat levels around their stomach. Stress isn't always 'bad', some of us respond well to it (I know I personally work well under pressure!). But it is more when we are continually stressed that it becomes a problem - not just in relation to your weight, but to your overall health.

Whilst I'm going to talk about the implications of stress, it would be a bit stupid to say that we need to eliminate stress - stress isn't going anywhere in our society. But instead, I want to talk about how we can try and build up our personal resilience to it. Kids, work, money, housework, school, family, health, relationships etc mean we move from one stress to another, and often juggling so many stressors at any one time. As a result, our bodies (and brains) don't get any down time - and we're in a constant state of stress!

So what does this mean for our weight?

When we are stressed, we are typically in 'fight or flight' mode - adrenaline and cortisol are released from the adrenal glands, boosting blood sugar so that you've got energy and are ready to fight or run away from the 'threat'. Usually, once the threat is over, the adrenals stop producing adrenaline and cortisol, and the body starts to return to normal. Whilst adrenaline reduces quickly, cortisol can take a few days to reduce to normal levels. But if you are continually stressed then you are constantly 'pumped' in this fight or flight mode - you are continually 'revving the engine' so to speak with high levels of cortisol and adrenaline. High cortisol levels mean you retain sodium to keep your blood pressure up, and it causes your body to crave certain foods (typically high fat and carbohydrate) to give you 'emergency' fuel. Then unless you do something with this fuel (and most stress nowadays doesn't involve running away from a predator), it will be stored as fat - typically around the middle. It is stored in the middle so that it is close to the liver - the liver breaks down fat to use as fuel when you need it again for your next emergency!

So what is stress like for you?

Do you eat more or less when stressed? Do you lose or gain weight with stress? Or maybe there isn't any noticeable difference for you in relation to weight and instead you may experience some of these other symptoms of continued stress and associated cortisol imbalance:

  • gain fat around the middle

  • appetite increases

  • craving for high fat and carbohydrate food (often at the same time)

  • you have a mid-afternoon slump, when need caffeine or sugar to get you going

  • low immune system - often ill or get a lot of cold sores (cold sores a sign your stress management system is struggling)

  • headaches

  • blood sugar swings

  • digestive bloating / flatulence

  • muscle aches and pains - particularly neck and shoulders

  • hair loss

  • depression

  • difficulty concentrating, brain fog, forgetfulness

  • tired but can't sleep - or experience middle of the night waking and then can't / don't want to get up in the morning

  • feel wired - particularly in the evening

  • absent libido

  • slower metabolism - gaining weight for no obvious reason

  • Increased PMS symptoms or irregular and absent periods

Having read those list of 'symptoms', I would like you to reflect on the following questions:

  1. Am I experiencing any of these symptoms of continued stress / cortisol imbalance. Which ones?

  2. What are the main stressors in my life?

  3. How do I respond to and manage stress? What are my coping strategies?

Next time I will talk about some tips and strategies for building your own resilience to stress - as like I said earlier, stress isn't going anywhere any time soon - so lets just try and get better at managing it for our physical and mental health and well-being, including our waist lines.

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