Stress may very well be a fact of life, but did you know that it could be making you fat? In fact, chronic anxiety is a double-edged sword—it can cause weight gain and prevent weight loss. As if you needed another reason to curtail the stress in your life.
The Stress Response
Your body responds to all stress in the same way—with the fight-or-flight response. Your body doesn’t know the difference between physical stress and psychological stress, or a brief stressful event and a chronic, prolonged period of stress. Stress is stress. Therefore, when you experience stress, your body responds as if you are in physical danger.
First, you’ll experience a surge of adrenaline. This is what allows you to fight or flee. Next, your body will release a surge of cortisol. Cortisol is an interesting beast. This hormone serves to replenish energy—energy that you were supposed to have used in your adrenaline-fused fight or flight. However, in today’s world, we aren’t fleeing from saber-toothed tigers, which means we aren’t burning a whole lot of calories in our stressed state. The result? Cortisol makes us hungry and we grab for calories that we don’t necessarily need.
Cortisol and Fat
Elevated levels of cortisol lead to a decrease in testosterone levels. Testosterone isn’t just for men. Women produce it, too—just on a smaller scale. Testosterone is important because it’s a muscle-building hormone. A drop in testosterone levels results in decreased muscle mass, which translates to fewer calories burned and more fat stored. In other words, excess cortisol is not your friend.
What’s worse is that the excess cortisol causes us to reach for sweet, salty, and fatty foods because these foods stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that can reduce tension. It’s a vicious cycle—increased anxiety leads to poor dietary choices.
Stop the Stress-Weight Gain Cycle
Want to curtail the evil effects of too much cortisol? There are some steps you can take to beat the cycle and keep the extra weight away.
- Become a member of the slow eating club: Seriously. Slow down. People who eat more slowly tend to eat less and feel full faster. It’s tempting to scarf down your food when you’re overwhelmed with stress, but it’s counter-productive.
- Quit caffeine: You think you need it, but it’s only fueling the problem. Caffeine combined with stress raises cortisol levels more than stress alone. Break this habit and you’re well on your way to breaking the stress-cortisol-weight gain cycle.
- Make breakfast a priority: It’s a fact—breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Deficiencies in nutrients such as vitamins B, C, calcium, and magnesium can lead to increased cortisol levels and food cravings. Set yourself up for success first thing in the morning to avoid disastrous consequences later in the day.
- Ditch the diet: It may seem counterintuitive, but constant, rigid dieting can lead to spikes in cortisol levels. Instead, eat a well-balanced diet, with three to five meals or snacks spaced evenly throughout the day.
- Embrace exercise: Moderate exercise is one of the most effective stress relievers. Avoid intense exercise sessions, which can exacerbate stress. Instead, go for a brisk walk.
- Stop, drop, and sleep: Sleep deprivation is a major source of excess cortisol. Make sleep a priority if you want to avoid the dreaded weight gain associated with stress.