You’re eating well enough, you exercise more than four times a week and yet – you’re still gaining weight.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
Research suggests the biggest culprit could be the ‘perfect storm’ of stress and lack of proper rest.
First, the hormone rush:
Your brain reacts to stress, whether physical or psychological, 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.
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Second, the lack of sleep:
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.
How to reduce 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.
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.