Beat Stress, Weigh Less

These days, it seems that everyone is stressed. We all have too much to do and too little time to do it. Times are tough, money is tight, and deadlines are imminent. 

What happens when you're stressed? You tend to eat more, sleep less, skip the gym and feel rundown. Additionally, stress is linked to a number of illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and an increased risk for cancer.

No wonder so many of us are gaining weight. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology studied stress related work demands, difficulty paying bills, strained family relationships, and depression or anxiety disorders in a nationally representative group of 1,355 men and women for more than nine years. The overall result? Men tend to gain weight when unable to make decisions at work, learn new skills job or perform interesting job duties. More types of stress affected women's waistlines, according to the study. In addition to weight gain associated with financial problems or a difficult job, women also gained weight when dealing with strained family relationships and feeling limited by life's circumstances. Overall, this study found that people who reported increased stress gained more weight if they already had higher body mass indexes. In other words, if you're overweight already, you're even more likely to gain weight when under stress.

Although everyone handles stress differently, these researchers believe that when coping with life's stressful periods, people change their eating behaviors—and not for the better. Food isn't the only factor that influences stress-induced weight gain; a person's gender, the types of foods they eat, and whether or not the person is already overweight or obese are all contributing factors. This explains why some people gain more weight under stressful circumstances, while others may gain just a little or even lose weight.

It's obvious that to fight weight gain or to lose weight permanently, we have to control and manage the stress in our lives. How do you do that? Why does the body react this way to stress?

The Science behind Stress

Stress serves an evolutionary purpose. Think back to the early caveman days when bills weren't an issue but saber-toothed tigers were. In preparation for a possible attack, our body's neuroendocrine system would send out a "fight or flight" set of hormones: adrenalin, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. Adrenaline gives us instant energy, CRH decreases appetite initially, but later, after the threat is long gone, cortisol can increase appetite to make up for energy that was lost fighting the tiger or running away.

Today, wild animals aren't attacking us, but we are facing huge stressors that affect our bodies exactly the same way as they always have, despite the fact that most of our modern-day stresses are not physical in nature and therefore don't burn any calories. Cortisol doesn't know that though, and it keeps coming, making you hungry—for simple, sugary carbs to supply you with instant energy. To make matters worse, moving the sugar we just ate from our blood to our muscles requires the hormone insulin. After stress, the body is filled with sugar and insulin, a fat-storing combination. Even worse, fat storage due to stress eating is usually centered around the midsection—visceral fat that has been linked to both diabetes and heart disease. Not good news for those who suffer from chronic stress.

Loss of Control

Many of us experience stress when we feel like life is out of our control or that we can't do what we need to do because of time or situational constraints. We may eat to fulfill emotional needs or to procrastinate. You may feel like we don't have enough time to fit in our workouts or lack the energy to exercise as long or intensely as you'd like. You may forget to pack a lunch, not have enough time to go to the grocery store or have reoccurring cravings for high-fat, calorie-dense foods. Fast food may seem like the only option that's both tasty and quick enough to scarf down over your lunch hour.

But just like everything else, eating when stressed is a somewhat learned behavior. Yes, there is brain chemistry involved, but over time, we can rewire our brains to not let stress affect our eating and energy levels. We can also deal with it head on by creating a stress-reduction plan and following simple tips to deal with stress and its negative effects. When you have more control over your life, you'll find that it's easier to stick to a healthy eating and workout plan. Eating better, exercising and combating stress—it's a combination to prevent weight gain and enhance weight loss.

Create a Stress-Reduction Plan

The first step to creating a stress-relief plan is realizing that you have too much stress in your life. If you are overly stressed, make a list of your stressors. Knowing what these stressors are is the first step to figuring out how to deal with them. Now identify one or two stressors that are within your control. Ask yourself if there's anything you can do to make your life easier. Is it looking for a different job? Getting up 20 minutes earlier so that you can miss the rush hour commute? Delegating some household chores to your children or significant other? So often we suffer from stress without ever thinking about the problem long enough to find a solution.

Next, commit to a daily stress-reduction activity. It should not be a major commitment unless you have plenty of time to devote to it (otherwise it'll just stress you more). Make a list of three activities that make you feel better and more like yourself and schedule five to 10 minutes each day to do that activity. Here are some ideas:
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Getting a massage
  • Working out
  • Deep breathing
  • Taking a nap
  • Reading a magazine
  • Taking a bath
  • Playing a game
  • Sitting quietly
  • Affection with a loved one or pet
Once you're into the habit of taking five to 10 minutes out a day for stress reduction, you should already be feeling somewhat better. Now it's time to start focusing on the signs of stress that you may not be paying attention to. Are you anxious or irritable? Are your muscles tight? Is your appetite increased? Are you breathing quickly? Pay attention to these "hidden" signs of stress and how they affect you. Then when you're faced with stress, take a few deep breaths, recognize the stress for what it is, and try to deal with the stressor as calmly and effectively as you can. If you have cravings, remind yourself that your body's hormones are being tricked and this too shall pass. (Many find that drinking water, making a cup of hot tea or chewing on a piece of gum can help pass the time.)

Doing this will not only make you a happier more balanced person, it will also help you to eat healthy and keep your energy levels high for those workouts and all other activities that keep your life busy.