We are often asked about the impact of stress on weight loss, and whether it is actually true that our bodies can hold on to fat when we are stressed. So in the name of knowledge and learning I got my research head on and set about finding out what actually happens to our bodies when we are under prolonged chronic stress, and whether it can have an impact on our efforts to lose weight.
What happens in our bodies when we are under stress?
According to the American Psychological Association; stress affects all systems in our bodies – musculoskeletal, digestion, cardio vascular and respiratory systems, , endocrine, nervous and reproductive systems.
It is thought to be good to have small bouts of stress, as it induces that fight or flight response and causes us to perform well, like we often talk about in relation to ‘optimal anxiety’. However, prolonged periods of stress can have more damaging effects.
In this article we are going to focus on the effects on our nervous and endocrine systems, primarily, and in turn what that means for our bodies long term.
Our nervous system is the system where the brain sends signals and messages to all parts of the body, causing glands to release hormones, body parts to move, or skin to shiver or sweat due to a change in temperature. Literally everything that happens in our bodies is a result of our nervous system passing messages between the brain and the rest of the body.
Our endocrine system is what governs our hormones, and working with the messages from the nervous system it releases hormones as instructed, to deal with whatever is going on in our bodies at any specific moment.
When under stress, our nervous system triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response and signals for the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol are the hormones which allow the body to generate more energy for the blood stream from the fat stores in our liver. The generation of energy in our blood stream allows us to deal more effectively with the emergency that we face, so that our muscles have readily available energy to allow us to react quickly. Once the emergency has passed, the cortisol and adrenaline levels reduce to normal. Problems occur when we are under intense periods of stress for a prolonged period of time.
What happens to our behaviour when we are under stress?
Stress can have many affects on our behaviour too – we may act erratically or do things we don’t normally do, get forgetful, over-react, or even think differently. Stress also affects our consumption and intake of energy.
For some people, stress causes a decrease in appetite, meaning that we eat less, and will of course, therefore eventually lose weight.
However, for some people (i.e. definitely me!), stress causes us to eat more – we eat our feelings! It can also cause us to choose less healthy foods which are higher in calories, comfort foods, and foods that we interpret as making us ‘feel good’.
Some people also use alcohol to relieve the feelings of stress, and to help them relax. Alcohol is just empty calories, so any increase in alcohol consumption is an increase in calorie consumption.
When stressed it may also make us feel tired and overworked, leading us to be more sedentary and take part in physical activity, less frequently.
So how does all this affect weight loss?
Short bursts of stress and the associated bodily reactions shouldn’t generally impact on our attempts at managing our weight. However, if you are under prolonged periods of stress, then science shows that you could be reducing your chances of success, when it comes to weight loss.
Not only can prolonged stress cause problems such as poor mental health, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and inhibition of the immune system, but it can also impact on how your body deals with food.
Prolonged periods of stress have been linked with prolonged release of adrenaline and cortisol which over time causes insulin resistance. Insulin resistance has a number of effects on the body including inability to release energy from fat stores, and causing fat stores to take on more energy. In muscle, it reduces the amount of energy it takes on (which is actually where we want the energy to go) and increases the breakdown of muscle fibre. Overall it is thought that chronic insulin resistance can lead to excess fat being stored in the torso, and impaired metabolism.
Looking at behaviours, prolonged periods of stress and therefore prolonged periods of sedentary behaviour, reckless eating, increased amounts of food , poor food and drink choices and increased alcohol intake will only result in one thing – weight gain!
The two things combined – behaviour and the changes in the body due to prolonged excessive release of adrenaline and cortisol will undoubtedly impair our ability to lose weight. It is therefore, important that we look after our mental state and take steps to relax more when we feel that we may be at risk of chronic stress.
However much one response contributes to our situation over the other, it seems the scientific jury is still out. I suspect it is probably the behaviour that causes us more damage, however, whichever it is, there is definitely an argument for keeping our stress levels in check, if we want to lead a healthy lifestyle at a healthy weight.
Stress management and weight loss
Scientific studies show that there is evidence to link other mental health issues and obesity. In addition to prolonged stress leading to weight gain, there is also evidence to suggest that living with obesity increases your risk of developing depression. It follows therefore, I think, that this then becomes a vicious cycle of worsening mental state and increased weight gain. So it is absolutely imperative that we keep our mental health in check, to keep our physical health in check too!
To help manage and prevent this, we should look to some stress management techniques to improve our chances of weight loss, as well as improving our mental and overall physical health. In fact, scientists in Greece thought the same and conducted a study on 45 people with a BMI over 30. In the study, half the patients were given weight loss coaching and the other half were given weight loss coaching alongside an 8 week stress management program. Both groups lost weight, however, the group that also took part in the stress management program, had a significantly greater reduction in their BMI – with the control group losing on average 8.7lbs over 8 weeks, and the group that took part in the stress management program losing 15.5lbs over the 8 weeks, that’s an improvement of 86%!
What can I do?
If you do currently feel like you are suffering the negative effects of prolonged or chronic stress, it’s time to take action, not only for your mental and emotional health but so that you can improve your physical wellbeing, and your chances of weight loss success too. Even if you aren’t currently feeling stressed or suffering the effects of chronic, prolonged stress, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few preventative measures either.
Try these simple stress management techniques to help:
- Regular exercise – it wouldn’t be a Be Strong article if we weren’t encouraging you to move more! Regular physical activity releases happy hormones and reduces our stress levels.
- Get enough sleep – a good nights sleep works wonders and regular healthy sleep patterns keep your body and mind in tip top condition.
- Be in nature – being in green (trees, grass, greenery) or blue (water) space is widely accepted as helping to reduce your stress levels, so get outdoors and breathe in those green and blue spaces.
- Meditation techniques – regular meditation or mindfulness practices help you to manage anxious thoughts and feelings, gain perspective and reduce negative emotions. Just set aside five minutes a day and focus on your breath. There’s lots of helpful mindfulness and meditation practices available on YouTube.
- Reduce stimulants – caffeine and other stimulants can increase your heart rate, leaving you feeling anxious and stressed. Reducing the amount of caffeine in your day could have a positive impact on your perceived stress levels.
- Write things down – journaling and reflection is fantastic, not only for progressing towards your goals, but also for helping you to deal with stressful situations – helping you to get things in perspective and work out solutions.
- Practise gratitude – Taking sometime every day to think of one or two things that you are grateful for can have a huge impact on your happiness levels, allowing you to put your focus on the positive rather than the negative.
- Build a strong social support network – talking to or spending time with good friends can hugely impact your ability to deal with stress. Not only do your friends make you happy but they also help you to work out problems through talking, gaining alternative perspectives, and reminding you of who you are!!
Take some time to introduce some of these stress management techniques to not only improve your mental health, but your physical health too!