How Stress Affects Your Weight

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An alternate title for this post could have been: “How I Managed to Finish a Degree in Food and Nutrition and Gain 30 Pounds While Doing It.”

The last 2.5 years have been really really good but also really really crazy. I started going back to school in January 2014 on a part-time basis. At the time, I was personally unhappy, work was crazy busy, and I was trying to fumble my way through a chemistry class (the only class I almost failed in high school, FYI). I eventually shifted my work and school schedules around to try to make things easier, but as you know, life tends to do whatever, regardless of if it’s what you’re needing or not.

So I wanted to talk a little bit today about stress and the body—what’s going on when we’re stressed out physically, what can we do to help fix it. Our culture basically thrives on stress—we feel constant pressure to be the best, to do the most, to constantly improve ourselves. We work a ton of hours, try to fit in time with family and friends, and still want to have extracurriculars. And all the while we’re looking for life balance, and even more frustrated when we can’t seem to achieve this.

The Stress Response

Our body activates a stress response to a situation via adrenaline, or epinephrine. This is the whole “fight or flight” thing people talk about. Our heart rates increase, blood pressure increases, you know what I’m talking about. Once the stress response is activated, our friend cortisol kicks in to regulate the response. All our unnecessary body functions go on hold until the stressful situation ends.

Now, this response is not a bad thing—it’s critical to our survival. You can think about the classic example of meeting a lion in the wild—your body has to activate a stress response so that you are primed to respond. Once you’ve gotten away from the lion, your body returns back to normal.

The thing is, in our society, our stress response is activated all. the. time. It’s like our bodies think we’re constantly interacting with lions every day. And a lot of bad things can happen as a result of this. Elevated stress hormones can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and weight gain. Cortisol in particular is associated with weight gain, especially in the abdominal region of our bodies.

On top of that, constant stress is known to affect our self-control, which explains stress eating, drinking, and sedentary behavior. Moderation takes discipline! And discipline is something I definitely lacked while I was chronically stressed.

Unfortunately, this all becomes a vicious cycle. Chronic stress is known to impair sleep, and poor sleep quality is associated with higher BMI. When you’re tired you lack self-control, plus your hunger hormones are screwed up and you crave more high-sugar, high-fat foods. See what I mean?

Assessing Stress

So what do we do? Just give in and accept that we’re going to be constantly stressed and unhealthy?

If you are going through a stressful time, there are a few things you need to assess. Determine what the source of stress is and how you are going to deal with it.

For me, it was school. And fortunately, there was a light at the end of that tunnel. I’m done with my degree and feel a TON better. And now I have time and energy to devote to things I love. But maybe the source of stress in your life is a job or a new baby or finances. Things that aren’t going to go away soon. What do you do then?

Prioritize sleep. Sleep is so incredibly important for your body, mind, and emotions. If you do nothing else, make sure you are getting enough sleep (or as much as you can). If thoughts or worries are keeping you up, try praying or meditating. I’ve been using this lavender sleep balm for a few months and LOVE it. Do some stretching before bed. Try to find a restful nighttime routine that signals to your body that it’s time to unwind for the day.

Secondly, try to manage the stress in your life as best as possible. Find a healthy way to relieve stress, and if possible, one that involves getting some healthy movement in. Again, mindfulness and prayer are key to this. Find social support—maybe through coworkers or friends or family members. It may mean making some changes, maybe some hard or scary ones. The thing is, your health has to be just as important to you as getting everything done. This is the only life and body that you get, and taking care of it is a privilege.

Lastly, give yourself some grace. Accept where you’re at and move on. For me, it’s with an extra 30 pounds. Am I thrilled about that? No. Am I going to beat myself up over it? No. I did a lot of incredible things over that past few years, and to me, that is more important than how thin I am. I am moving forward, looking at each day as a fresh start and way to make different, better choices than I was able to over the last few years.

Dealing with stress is such a difficult topic, and I by no means have all the answers. I’m just muddling my way through like everyone else. But I think this is a good place to start, and I hope this little post has been helpful, even a little bit. ❤


Please note: The opinions in this post are my own and are not meant to substitute for professional medical advice. Please talk to your healthcare provider before making any changes involving your health.
Information was obtained from the following sources:
Berset M et al. Does stress at work make you gain weight? A two-year longitudinal study. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2011;37(1):45-53.
Brand S et al. Influence of mindfulness practice on cortisol and sleep in long-term and short-term meditators. Neuropsychobiology. 2012;65:109-118.
Harding JL et al. Psychosocial stress is positively associated with body mass index gain over 5 years: evidence from the longitudinal AusDiab study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014;22(1):277-286.
Rudenga KJ et al. Acute brain stress potentiates brain response to milkshake as a function of body weight and chronic stress. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(2):309-316.
Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037. Accessed August 23, 2016.
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2 thoughts on “How Stress Affects Your Weight

  1. I agree with this 100%. I gained 35-40 pounds during my first 2 years of nursing school. I attribute stress to this, for sure. We tend to be more sedentary and eat more; two things that contribute to weight gain. I plan to go back and do a nutrition degree too. We’ll see if it happens again…

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