Is Stress Making You Fat?

Community // Naomi Jaul // 21 June 2015

If anxiety and stress are a regular part of your everyday life, you could be pressing pause on your weight loss progress.

Between work, family, workouts and, well, life, stress is a common problem for many of us. The problem is, the anxiety that stress causes can be a trigger for weight gain – and it can put a halt to weight loss quicker than you can say “comfort food”.

In one large American survey, 43 per cent of respondents admitted to overeating, or to eating unhealthy foods, in response to stress – and women were more likely to do it than men.

How Your Brain Reacts to Stress

Here’s the deal: your brain reacts to stress – whether physical or mental – by sending out waves of hormones. First, there’s adrenaline, that heart-pumping energy booster that’s designed to help us outrun the predators we used to face way back when. These days, it helps us act quickly in response to danger. It also pumps out cortisol, which you don’t feel the effects of until about an hour later. Then it hits you: you’re ravenous. Why?

Well, after outrunning that metaphorical predator, your brain wants you to refuel with the highest-calorie foods you can find (hello, brownie!). The obvious problem is that most of us are facing a deadline rather than a deadly beast, so we don’t actually need that extra fuel. And chances are, our stress levels are spiking not just once in a while, but every day.

As a result, over the long haul chronic stress encourages the body to store fat – especially on our stomachs – rather than burn it. At the same time, high levels of cortisol slow the production of testosterone, which helps build and maintain muscle mass. Lose muscle, and your metabolism slows too.

The Perfect Stress Storm

Then there’s the sleep factor: when you’re stressed, you sleep poorly, and research shows that lack of sleep increases your levels of cortisol, which makes you feel even more stressed – it’s a vicious cycle. The optimum amount of shut- eye? According to experts, we need seven to eight hours a night.

“The combination of stress hormones, not enough sleep and comfort eating creates the perfect storm for weight gain and then for difficulty getting it off,” says psychologist Jo Lamble.

“Stress can also come from setting unrealistic expectations about weight loss. Putting enormous pressures on yourself or depriving yourself of everything you used to enjoy can create extra stress,” she adds.

6 Ways to Reduce Your Stress

So, other than hitting the hay, what can you do to reduce stress on an ongoing basis? If you’re exercising, you’re on the right track – staying active helps. Next, cut back on caffeine: research shows that two to three cups of coffee when you’re already stressed raises cortisol levels by 25 percent.

Also, spend time with people you love, says Lamble, or (even better) hang out with your pet – in one study, people with pets had lower stress levels than non- pet-owners and also showed improved task performance. And in another study, people who had their pets with them while conducting a difficult task were less stressed than when they had their spouse or close friend with them!

Stress-relieving pastimes can help too. “Consider taking yoga classes, and tap into your creative side – whether by painting, drawing, writing or crafting,” Lamble suggests. To get a good night’s sleep, develop a ‘before-bed’ routine, including things like switching off electronic devices, drinking a cup of herbal tea and reading. “And anchor your wake-up time – getting up at the same time every morning helps,” says Lamble.

Healthy Alternatives

Reducing Stress Article SleepBut what about when you’re in the midst of a serious stress-out? If you find yourself with a regular craving for mac-and-cheese, “Develop healthy ways to combat comfort eating: go for a walk, have a bath, meet a friend or have a manicure,” Lamble suggests.

[Related: Hack Your Habits: How to Make Healthy New Behavious Last]

If you’re still on edge and the problem doesn’t seem to be easing, talk to your GP or head to BeyondBlue for help with working out if you’re actually suffering from depression or an anxiety disorder – three million Australians are, so you wouldn’t be alone.

If you put some effective strategies in place, you’ll soon discover what your most effective stress-buster is. Our favourite here at 12WBT? A kick-ass boxing class!

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