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How Stress Makes You Fat

by Lisa Turner
Jul 1, 2010


Are you a hard-core Type A? If so, you’re hampering your immune system, increasing your risk of heart disease and cancer, cultivating wrinkles—and probably getting chubby. More and more research is pointing out the connection between stress and weight gain, and all the studies show that constant fretting can make you tubby before your time.

It’s all part of your primal survival system. Our bodies are hardwired to react to serious physical danger, like giant animals with big, scary teeth, by either launching into combat or running like a mad person–the fight-or-flight response. Either scenario requires a sudden, intense burst of energy. Here’s what happens: let’s say you’re cruising through the jungle about 500,000 years ago. You spot a giant animal with big, scary teeth. In response, your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration skyrocket, preparing you to fight back or run away, and your body releases adrenaline and cortisol–hormones that put your system on hyper-alert–mobilize stored carbohydrates and raise blood sugar for quick energy.

Let’s say you choose the “flee” response, and run like a mad person away from the giant animal. You escape. The running like mad burns off excess sugar in your blood; the adrenaline dissipates, and the cortisol lingers, prompting you to eat to replace the carbohydrate and fat you burned while fleeing or fighting.

Half a million years ago, that was all well and fine. But here’s the problem: your brain can’t tell the difference between real and perceived danger—say, harsh words with your boss or spouse, a looming deadline, or a near traffic accident. Under those stressful conditions, your body still goes on hyper-alert, and the cortisol that floods your body still urges you to eat more–and makes you hold on to fat. Meanwhile, you haven’t moved from your seat. Over time, those kinds of chronic, low-grade stressors, and the body’s continuous response, take their toll.

You can’t avoid stress completely, but you can keep it from wrecking your life and your waistline. Try these simple ways to chill out and slim down.

1. Quit starving. Dieting is stressful on the body, and when it’s prolonged or very restricted, can actually increase levels of cortisol. Rather than tally up calories, start to notice how your body responds to stress—especially in terms of appetite and snacking patterns. Stress makes us crave carbs, for instant energy to replenish fuel we should have burned during fighting or fleeing. And carbs also provide fast-acting serotonin, the brain’s happy-making and calming neurotransmitter. Also be aware of when you eat to ease tension. If you’ve been nervous all day, stress—and cortisol—levels may have built up to uncomfortable levels by evening, sending you running to freezer in search of ice cream and instant relief. And evening is when our calorie-burning mechanisms are the most sluggish—so you’ll soon wear what you’re eating.

2. Run like a mad person. Or at least engage in some kind of stress-relieving exercise. Aerobic movement helps burn off built-up adrenaline and cortisol, truly effective for lowering stress, and meditative movement like yoga and tai chi calms the mind and enhances deep breathing. Bike to work or the corner store, go out dancing with a friend, jump rope, roller blade, take a salsa class. Whatever you choose as your form of movement, make sure you enjoy it; exercise you hate will only make you more stressed out.

3. Support yourself. Periods of prolonged or intense stress can take their toll—even if you’re eating right and exercising. If you’re feeling depleted, offer your body additional support. Vitamin C may help reduce stress hormone blood levels, and herbs like Ashwagandha and Holy basil help combat stress and reduce tension. And get plenty of sleep, taking naps whenever possible, to disconnect from stress and soothe your body.

4. Dive deep. Meditating eases stress by clearing the mind, calming the emotions and relaxing the body. Studies have shown that stress-reducing meditation lowers blood pressure as well as drugs. At least 30 minutes a day is best, but even if you take a 10-minute time out, you’ll reap the rewards. Turn off the phone, sit in a quiet place with your back straight, close your eyes, and take 10 long, slow, deep breaths. Then direct your breath into the area of your heart, feeling your chest walls and sternum expand outward with each breath. As thoughts arise, notice them, but then let them go; visualize them as clouds blowing gently away, then return to watching your breath. Repeating a word or mantra—try “calm” or “peace”—can also help steady your mind and calm the stress response.

5. Change your mind. You can’t completely control your circumstances, but you can control your perception of them. Start keeping a stress journal, in which you list all your daily stressors and the automatic thoughts that arise in those situations, and your response to the situations. Then begin to formulate more constructive thoughts and responses. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, rather than make an unfriendly hand gesture to the driver, you might think “That man must really be in a hurry; I’ll bet he feels as stressed and rushed as I do.” Maybe your constructive response might be a friendly wave, or a deep breath. Something about writing down the constructive thoughts and responses to stressful situations seems to make them “stick” better. It takes a little practice, but it’s well worth the effort. Besides, what do you have to lose, besides excess stress and a few pounds?

Lisa Turner is a widely published food writer with five books on health and nutrition, and hundreds of magazine articles. In addition to writing books and magazine articles, Lisa combines 20 years of yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices to help her clients explore emotional issues behind their eating habits. Currently, she’s a faculty instructor at Bauman College of Culinary Arts and Nutrition in Boulder, Colorado, and hard at work on her next book. Visit her websites at www.TheHealthyGourmet.net and InspiredEating.com

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