How stress can make us fat

We have all heard that stress has a myriad of detrimental effects on the body: It makes us tired and irritable, disrupts sleep, messes with our digestion, drives blood pressure up and upsets our hormone balance to name but a few. Unfortunately, this time of year is associated with stress for many people, not just during the run up to Christmas, but also at Christmas proper when families come together.

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A lesser known side effect of stress is that it can contribute to weight gain and make it harder to lose weight. Our physical reaction to stress – the ‘stress response’ – is mean to help us out of situations in which we are physically threatened. The ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction is supposed to get us out of real danger, and the stress response is perfectly suited for that (click here for more on the stress response).

As we need to run or fight, we are going to require energy. The stress hormone cortisol ensures the release fat and glucose into the blood stream to provide that energy. Only, we are stressed because of year-end deadlines at work, the long line at the till, our December bank statement or our mother-in-laws special dietary requirements, not a polar bear about to pounce. We are not going to run or fight and are not going to use up that extra energy, so it ends up stored away around the middle, either as visible abdominal fat or visceral fat, the fat around the organs.

Meanwhile, we are also experiencing cravings to keep energy levels up, particularly for sugary foods. There is never any shortage, but before Christmas it is even harder to avoid temptation as well-meaning colleagues bring mince pies into work, we’ve got Christmas lunches and dinners, shops offer family-sized tins of biscuits and chocolates, and home-baking makes the house smell sweet. Resisting temptation is hard enough, put baked goods in front of a stressed person, and they don’t really stand a chance. These sugary foods now add to the already high blood sugar and ultimately even more belly fat. 

In the long run, high cortisol levels can interfere with thyroid function, too. The thyroid regulates your metabolic rate: the amount of calories you burn at rest. A slow metabolic rate means weight gain.

Yes, we all know that stress can ruin your festive mood, but prolonged stress does much more than that: It can lead to anxiety and depression and contributes to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and dementia. It is also the most common underlying reason for tiredness. Testing your cortisol levels will tell you whether stress has begun to affect your health and can help identify your individual requirements. A nutritional therapist can assist you in getting tested.

It’s not easy to reduce stress, especially in December, but it is worth doing whatever you can to do just that. Is there anyone who could help you? Could your kids contribute some more to running the house, perhaps by putting their own stuff away? Is there anything you can cross off the list, because it’s not actually that important? Can you carve at least 5 minutes out of your day to get away from everything and practise deep breathing techniques or meditate? Anything you can do to lighten your load is going to be helpful.

But knowing when and what to eat can help us cope better with the stressors we cannot remove. Tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News will tell you which foods help build resilience to stress. It is not too late to subscribe. 

If you struggle with stress or illness as a result of stress, why not come and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea?