Stress is commonly associated with weight loss, and those of us who are a little chubby are often secretly hoping for a stressful episode to help us shed a few pounds. Unfortunately, the fact is that most people are more likely to respond to stress with weight gain.
How does stress make you gain weight?
The principle of weight gain while under stress is fairly simple. Stress of all types, including physical, emotional, and environmental stresses, causes changes to the chemicals in the body. These chemical changes in turn lead to cravings for sugary or salty foods, which are generally unhealthy and calorie laden, leading to weight gain.
The part of the body responsible for these cravings is the adrenal glands. They enable us to cope with stress and adapt to difficult situations. When they are overburdened, however, they need something to keep them going, and sugar and salt provide temporary sustenance to keep them working.
There are three main chemicals involved in the weight gain process:
- Adrenaline is produced by the adrenal glands in response to a stressful situation and is intended to give the body enough strength to fight the situation, or to run away from it. Adrenaline is responsible for the rush we feel when faced with a particularly stressful event. Adrenaline doesn’t stay in the body for very long, and when it disappears, we experience a ‘crash,’ which is when the cravings for sugar and salt tend to kick in.
- Cortisol is also produced by the adrenal glands when we are put under stress, but this lasts much longer in the body, and prolonged stress can lead to a buildup of cortisol. Excessive amounts of cortisol will lead to erratic blood sugar levels, which can produce cravings for sugary food in the short term, and can be one cause of diabetes in the long term.
- Serotonin is the final chemical to be involved in the weight gain process. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter intended to regulate mood. It helps to deal with short term stress, but serotonin levels can become depleted if the body is subjected to long term stress. Serotonin levels should be replenished by eating a healthy diet, but for many people the modern diet is insufficient, and sugar becomes a short term substitute. Low serotonin levels can lead to cravings for sugary food, and over long periods can lead to depression.
Is weight gain from stress natural?
There are two factors that interfere with nature to make weight gain through stress an unnatural process, even though it involves chemicals that are naturally produced in the body.
The first is the modern diet, where processed foods are often easier and cheaper to buy than naturally healthy foods. If we experience a sugar craving, we are very likely to reach for sweets, cakes or candy bars that are nothing but empty calories waiting to make us fat. They will cause temporary relief from food cravings, but the cravings will quickly return even more strongly once the immediate effect of the sugar wears off.
If we were to reach for a piece of fruit or some sunflower seeds, on the other hand, the effects would be more long lasting, and we would be consuming essential nutrients to improve our overall health and wouldn’t be putting on weight.
The second factor is the type of prolonged stress that we experience in modern society. In the past, stressful events would have included bereavement, childbirth, or illness, which may have caused a great deal of stress, but once they were over, the body would have time to heal and recover.
In today’s world of noise, pollution, deadlines, depression, prolonged illness, isolation and loneliness, the body is subject to constant stress, and never really has the opportunity to recover. Instead of taking time out to heal, most people deal with stress by responding to their cravings and loading up on sugary or salty food, which leads to weight gain and general ill health.
Beating stress related weight gain
Here are some of the ways to break the cycle of stress related weight gain:
- Plan healthy snacks such as cheese and crackers, celery and peanut butter, or fruit and yogurt, and eat before you are hungry so you are less tempted by a sugary snack. Don’t have cakes or cookies in the house.
- Eat foods with plenty of tryptophan, which produces serotonin. These include sunflower seeds chicken, turkey, nuts, cheese and beans.
- Eat regularly at the same time each day. Have breakfast within an hour of waking up and try to eat dinner before 6pm.
- Drink plenty of water, as stress can make you dehydrated. Coffee, tea and soda will only make the problem worse.
- Include whole grains in your diet, as these will help to regulate blood sugar and will top up levels of Vitamin B, which helps people cope with stress.
- Make sure you get enough sleep and rest. Even when you are very busy you will be more effective and efficient if you are well rested.
- Get some sort of exercise every day. It doesn’t need to be a trip to the gym, just a brisk walk in your lunch break will do.