Is Stress Sabotaging Your Weight Loss?
Being in a chronic state of stress affects weight loss both directly and indirectly, by sending the body into “survival mode” and diverting the body’s systems away from the essential daily functions needed to keep our metabolism and energy systems operating efficiently, chronic activation of the stress response leads to illness, inflammation, insulin resistance and ultimately resulting in an uphill battle to lose weight.
When the stress response is activated, your body’s systems shift gears in order to channel more energy to those areas needed for immediate survival, such as sending glucose to muscles for quick energy, and triggering the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. In turn, that energy is channeled away from other systems including the digestive, hormonal and immune systems, leaving the body in a stressed and compromised state.
How does chronic stress affect weight loss directly?
There are two main hormones at play when you are in a state of stress: Cortisol and Insulin. Cortisol mobilizes glucose to help you outrun the threat, whether it be a tiger in prehistoric times, or a stressful deadline in today’s modern world. It does this in four ways:
- Increased cravings for food high in sugar or foods that are easily converted to glucose (carbohydrates).
- Breaking down the stored glucose in the liver.
- Converting fat and protein to glucose.
- Converting muscle to glucose.
Higher levels of glucose may be necessary for a burst of energy to outrun an immediate short term threat, but when the stress response is triggered for a prolonged period of time and glucose is not being used up by your muscles, the higher levels of blood sugar trigger an insulin response in an effort to lower it. Insulin then acts to store the excess glucose as fat deposits.
Over time, Cortisol can reduce insulin sensitivity, causing insulin resistance and in turn requiring the pancreas to produce more and more insulin to control blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes and the more insulin you have – the more fat is being stored.
Beyond the direct metabolic effects that stress has on our system, stress can also have indirect effects on other behaviors that help or hurt our ability to maintain a healthy weight.
When you are stressed you may also find yourself in a vicious cycle of poor sleep, resulting in fatigue and reduced productivity, which in turn results in poor food choices, etc. This loop may begin with either an inability to fall asleep due to the psychological effects of stress—the brain being unable to unwind or emotions running too high to wind down. In turn, the increased cortisol levels caused by stress disrupt our ability to get into deep REM sleep which is key to healing and restoring the body. Once this cycle begins, it will likely have farther reaching effects on our health and particularly our fitness/weight loss goals. If you are stressed and exhausted from lack of sleep; if you are choosing poor quality foods because you don’t have the energy to meal prep, or are simply choosing high carb processed foods for a quick energy boost, you will be much less likely to have the time or motivation to exercise
Cortisol increases appetite, especially for foods that easily convert to glucose. It suddenly becomes a lot harder to resist the temptation of that candy bar. Coupled with the feeling of being overwhelmed and/or fatigued, you may find yourself seeking convenient foods that are higher in calories and lower in nutrition, especially carbohydrates. Carbohydrates tend not to satisfy hunger very long and this leads to more frequent meals and snacks which further continues the glucose, insulin, insulin resistance, weight gain cycle. This shift further challenges weight loss goals due to the increased intake of carbohydrate-rich foods.
Also be aware that your calorie requirements may change when you are under stress, and what feels like hunger may just be the hormones talking. Consider adding adaptogens and supplements like Ashwagandha, Green Tea, or Kava Kava to your routine or even metabolic boosters like hot peppers.
So how do we reduce the sabotage of stress in our weight loss efforts?
Know your enemy.
If you know how the system works, you are much more likely to see the signs and know how to proactively prepare and plan.
- Prepare for carbohydrate cravings by stocking up on convenient healthy snacks. You can increase the fat content of your meals so you can go longer between meals and lessen the hunger that triggers overeating.
- Plan Sunday meal prep sessions with your partner or with a friend so it is easier to keep up with. Sharing meal prep also saves time and money, which can help alleviate these areas of stress in your life.
- Take time to set weekly priorities and strategies in order to maintain focus and avoid taking on more than you can handle.
- Set small, achievable goals to include at least one form of low-intensity exercise into your daily routine. Even if it’s a walk with your dog to unwind after work, or going on a bike ride with your kids, any form of exercise reduces cortisol and increases endorphins to improve your mood and energy level. It also helps with sleep.
- Try to incorporate some kind of meditation and mindfulness into your day. Particularly in the morning, spending just a few minutes of journaling, meditation, or reflection can help give your day more direction and intention which will not only help combat stress, but also arm you with the tools to avoid binge eating and emotional eating.
- Hug it out! Studies show that positive physical contact, like a simple hug, can help release oxytocin, lower cortisol, and reduce symptoms of stress. So, snuggle up with the dog, cuddle your kids, and spend some quality time with your partner.
We tend to discount the huge impact that stress can have on our health, particularly our ability to lose weight and get fit. But simple, consistent strategies can get you closer to your goals and feeling better every day!
Feeling like you need a little help to get jumpstarted? Contact us for a complimentary health coaching session today! Our Genesis team will help you identify key stressors, find strategies to better manage them, and get you started on a path to better health and vitality today!