Most of the time, we love our busy, connected lives filled with multitasking and instant gratification. The downside, though, is that an unfortunately high number of Americans suffer from stress. Stress increases not only your heart rate and blood pressure, but also your blood glucose. Unused blood glucose is inflammatory, unhealthy, and adds to weight gain. The obesity epidemic is not just about food choices, activity, and portion control. Stress plays a significant role in weight gain. Traumatic events such as death or divorce can cause acute stress. Even events that are welcomed and intentional can cause stress.
Our lives are filled with uncertainty and instability. Interpersonal relationship issues, job-related trouble, health issues, financial struggles, and even a traffic ticket impact our day-to-day lives. The constant bombardment of negative news compounds this.
How Does Stress Affect Weight and Health?
Your body is hardwired to respond to a perceived threat or demand by calling on the adrenal glands to release a flood of stress hormones. While some of these hormones prepare the body for an emergency by making stored energy available, other hormones help the body store energy as fats, facilitating weight gain.
When the adrenal glands release adrenaline and/or cortisol, your liver and muscles dump glycogen into your bloodstream in reaction to the fight-or-flight response. You think less and react instinctively. Your digestion, bladder, and immune responses are slowed as energy is redirected toward physical action. Your blood pressure and pulse rise. Your coronary arteries dilate, increasing the blood supply to your brain, muscles, and limbs. Breathing increases as your lungs absorb more oxygen and expel more carbon dioxide. Glucose (glycogen) from the liver and muscles is released as you tense up. If that glucose isn’t used to fight or flee, it is stored in your body. Think weight gain.
The “crisis” is typically over in seconds or minutes, and your body chemistry and physical sensations return to normal. However, if you remain in a constant state of anxiety (ruminating about work, a financial problem, health issues, or even stressing out about exercise), your adrenal glands will respond with a continuous cortisol drip. This constant drip causes your body to incorrectly process food, release glucose, and ultimately store fat unnecessarily.
The excessive release of glucose and, in turn, the overproduction of insulin by the pancreas creates an inflammatory state, which makes losing weight difficult, even if you’re watching every calorie. Insulin acts as a key, unlocking your cells for glucose entry. But if your cells are already full because you’re not burning glucose by fighting or running, the insulin is ineffective, and the excess glucose is sent to fat cells for storage.
What Can You Do to Reduce the Effects of Stress on Your Weight and Health?
- Get enough sleep (6–8 hours every night).
- Eat to protect your pancreas (high blood glucose levels affect your emotional and physical health).
- Practice deep breathing. Inhale through your nose (to the count of 1,2,3,4), hold your breath (1,2,3,4), then exhale (4,3,2,1). Do this in the morning when you wake up and again several times a day—every time you get a text message, breathe before looking at it, or when you approach a stop light. Incorporate deep breathing into your daily routine.
- A hot bath.
- Massage. You don’t need a massage therapist; you can massage your hands and feet with lotion.
- Employ essential oils like lavender, chamomile, clary sage, jasmine, and ylang ylang to aid with stress and anxiety.
- Increase your activity. Movement/exercise soothes the mind, releasing endorphins. Increased activity forces your body to go into your “storage tanks” (fat cells) for fuel to operate your living machine.
- Practice meditation. Set aside 10 minutes a day to tune in to yourself and release your mind from chatty thoughts.
- Evaluate each stressful situation. Can you control it? Some things are just out of our hands. Know the difference.
You can jump-start your new lifestyle of improved health and weight loss through effective stress management.
Candice P. Rosen is a registered nurse, social worker, nutritionist, health counselor, and author. Candice was the first executive director of Gilda’s Club in Chicago (a support center for men, women, and children diagnosed with cancer) and is the creator of The Pancreatic Nutritional Program and Data-Driven Fueling. She has spent her life’s work focused on improving the wellness of both her clients and her community. Her experience as a clinical therapist and as a nurse gives her a unique perspective when it comes to nutrition counseling. As the former Chair of Healthcare Initiatives for Chicago’s Sister Cities International Program, she advocated for preventative medicine, improved disability access, promoted maternal and infant health, and worked to bring awareness to the global obesity and diabetes epidemics. Candice is the mother of four children and grandmother of one.