How to Reduce the Chronic Stress that Leads to Weight Gain

Science has proven that stress leads to weight gain in several ways. [1] The primary method is through the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that is released together with several other hormones during the fight or flight response, a reaction that occurs when we’re under stress. Cortisol makes us crave high energy, high fat, and sugar-rich foods, which in turn lead to weight gain. Higher stress levels not only make you crave these foods, but they also make you desire more of them as a means of survival. The body wants to make sure it has sufficient energy reserves to support us through the stressful period. This is the reason that when we are stressed out, we tend to eat more food as a means to support the higher needs of our body during the stress response.

This effect worsens when we are feeling stress for extended periods, during chronic stress. This type of stress poses many health risks, including weight gain and all the risks that come with it.

Effects of Chronic Stress and Cortisol on Weight

The consequences of stress are not limited to stress eating. Higher amounts of cortisol also tend to reduce metabolism levels, making any weight loss attempts less effective. Stress also reduces the release of digestive juices, making digestion less efficient.

Chronic stress levels also affect how your body stores fat. In most cases, stress leads to more fat storage, especially around the abdominal area. [2]

Stress levels also have an indirect effect on your weight. Being stressed out usually means being busy as well. This makes most of us opt for unhealthy fast foods and eating outside in general. Since most of the food you can find in these fast food restaurants are incredibly unhealthy, this makes weight gain and other health issues inevitable. 

A stressful and busy lifestyle also leads one to exercise less, or not at all, which is another contributing factor to weight gain. Less sleep which often comes with more stress also leads to weight gain.

How to Reduce or Eliminate Stress

Stress often seems like something that cannot be avoided in the modern world, with a busy job, children to care for and many bills to pay. But thankfully, there are several habits and lifestyle changes which can help you reduce or even eliminate stress from your life.

Let’s look into methods to reduce or eliminate stress:

1. Pay attention to the warning signs of stress.

This is the first stage. Many of us do not realize that we are under high stress until we suffer from burnout. The signs differ from person to person, but they usually include quicker breathing, faster heartbeat, a rising feeling of anger, impatience, anxiety, muscle tension, irritability and in the long term, insomnia.

2. Deep breathing

Deep breathing can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, controlling the relaxation response. When you focus your awareness on your breath, making it slower and deeper, this helps to slow your heart rate, allowing you to feel more peaceful.

3. Once you recognize that an event has caused you stress, create a quick and straightforward relaxation routine to reduce or remove it such as this one:

First you decide to let the stress go just as it came. Since you are not the stress, it is just a feeling that is outside of you, you can choose to dismiss the stressful thoughts and feelings that do not make you feel good. To do this, once becoming aware of the stress, take in a few slow deep breaths, and then see yourself as the observer of the stress. As the observer, you can then consciously choose to release the stress. There is never something that should come between you and your happiness. The only way something can come between you and your happiness is when you allow it to happen, so release the stress and negative feelings and just let them go. Acknowledge that they are there and choose to let them by. You can’t change what has already happened, and you don’t know for sure what the future holds, and you certainly can’t change other people to make you feel better, so you might as well let go of the negative feelings and just deal with life as it comes. I know this may sound difficult to do at first, but once you learn to notice the signs of stress and become aware that you are not your feelings and emotions, you can choose to let them go. When you learn to do this, there is nothing much that can come between you and your happiness.

4. Reduce your overall bond to stress by making better lifestyle choices:

Find time to enjoy your hobbies, take warm baths, do some stretching, meditation, massages, and yoga. Yoga enhances mood and has been found to be as effective as antidepressant drugs for the treatment of depression and anxiety (17). Also listen to music and exercise daily. Exercise lowers cortisol levels in the long run. It also releases endorphins, which help improve mood also after the exercise period is over. Exercise also improves sleep quality, reducing stress and anxiety. A daily 30-minute walk in nature can reduce stress levels for the whole day. Physical intimacy including hugging is also great for relieving stress.

And to finish off, eat healthily and try to follow a specific meal plan to ensure you are consuming enough of the right foods at the right times to support self-control. This will have a massive effect on your stress levels.

Reducing the stress in your life must be a conscious decision, and when you make this decision and make a few lifestyle alterations that support peace of mind, you will be happier and lead a healthier more fulfilling, stress-free life.

References:

[1] Curr Obes Rep. 2012 Mar; 1(1): 16–25. doi: 10.1007/s13679-011-0006-3

[2] Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 May; 19(5): 946–952. Published online 2010 Dec 2. doi:  10.1038/oby.2010.287

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