Stress and its effect on weight loss

Here at Fresh Start, we do talk about calories, but there is more to this weight loss equation than simply calories in minus calories out.

Although this equation is hugely important for weight loss, and it certainly is true — the body does need to be in an energy deficit to lose weight, many factors can alter and effect our bodies ability to burn calories.

Excess stress is one of the most common road blocks for a weight loss journey. Excess stress is when we breach our personal threshold, or tipping point of manageability. It can be the accumulation of demands, whether mental, emotional or physical, or simply a lifestyle, that our bodies become unable to cope with.

Stress is a natural reaction by the body when the brain registers a threat or danger, which ensures our survival, however it’s the prolonged heightened stress that our bodies are struggling with.

Stress will affect us all in different ways, some of us will experience periods of heightened stress during our lives, and some of us may be better at dealing with stress than others, meaning we don’t notice its effects so much.

In this day and age, our busy, fast-paced lifestyles promote stress. Money, work and time are some of the major, overriding stresses today. Being late to picking up the kids from school, traffic and that old ‘what’s for dinner?’ question are constant daily stresses.

For many these simple stresses builds up like a pile of bricks, and we may not notice it until that pile comes tumbling down and we’re having a panic attack, adrenal fatigue or mental breakdown. It’s important to be aware of how stress affects ourselves personally, to be able to tackle it effectively.

So, what’s this stress doing inside us?

When we’re stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is firing, signalling for the production and release of stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are produce by our adrenal glands, and are released when our brain registers we’re under stress. They emit a ‘fight or flight’ response, giving us those feelings we acknowledge as anxiousness, agitation and ‘flighty’.

Biologically, these responses exist for a method of survival, if a life-threatening animal presented itself, or a famine was approaching, these hormones would kick our bodies into action to ensure survival.

Fast-forward many thousands of years, we don’t need to jump up and run for our lives at lightning speed the moment we’re stressed, nor do we need to start accumulating fat stores for a period of famine.

So, although our stress factors have changed, unfortunately our biological clock hasn’t caught up.

The influx of stress hormones, particularly adrenaline (the acute stress hormone) affects our bodies’ ability to regulate energy levels, causing bursts of high energy and motivation. But these bouts of energy are short lived, and what goes up, must come down. This leads to more regular and greater energy slumps, and these slumps are when we get those cravings for energy dense, fast-delivering fuels, namely sugars, caffeine and carbohydrates.

It’s important to be able to identify when we are feeling stressed, so that we can fuel our bodies with the best options during these energy ‘lulls’, and avoid grabbing another coffee and that slice on the counter. This is where smart planning and low GI, slow-release energy foods are a great remedy for stabilising our energy and our blood sugar levels.

Stress also affects our hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin respectively. Cortisol (the chronic stress hormone) upregulates or increases the production of ghrelin, another hormone that tells us we’re hungry. Ghrelin also upregulates cortisol production — effectively, this is a negative cycle of stress and hunger where weight gain becomes imminent. Poor sleep and exhaustion can also hinder leptin’s ability to function (the hormone that tells us we’re full and can stop eating). This process essentially makes cortisol a fat storage hormone.

The constant circulation of stress hormones in our bodies, due to prolonged periods of stress, can also affect our metabolism. This stress signals for reduced calorie burn and increased fat deposits to our visceral layer. This adaptation of our bodies exists for survival during prolonged periods of famine — think long, cold winters, before supermarkets existed.

So how are we going to tackle this stress?

Firstly, we need to identify our stress triggers and then we need work to minimise these. This could be asking for help with certain tasks, delegating at work or at home, or even eliminating negative thoughts — guilt is a huge driver of stress. Some stresses simply can’t be removed from our lives, so finding ways to reduce the effects of stress and the SNS are just as important.

Upregulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for signalling rest and repair in our bodies, counteracts the SNS. Taking time to breathe deeply and properly, regular exercise, reduced caffeine intake or maybe even practicing yoga and meditation are just some of the things we can increase in our lives, to increase our PNS activity.

Some of our favourite stress management rituals –

* Down time or time without technology can work as a battery recharge for our brains (setting up a ‘tech-free time’ before bed supports deeper and more restorative sleep too!)

* Walking or light exercise

* A relaxing playlist, or a creative outlet — painting, reading or knitting

* Breathing deeply, yoga or stretching and meditation

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