You must already be well aware that you gain weight during stressful times. Each of us might pile on weight at specific vulnerable parts of our body. Some of us might store fat in our belly and some of us might find our thighs getting bigger. There are several reasons why we start to pile on weight when times get stressful.
Let’s first look at what happens physiologically under stress, breakdown all the ways in which we gain weight under stress, and then explore how to navigate stressful times and not succumb to weight gain.
What happens to the body under stress?
Stress is a situation where a real or perceived threat makes our body respond with physiological changes that mimic what needs to occur if we needed to run from the tiger. Under such a state of emergency, real or perceived, the brain thinks that we do not need the proper functioning of the digestive, reproductive, and immune system.
Why do we need to digest our food, be fertile, or protect ourselves from an infection when we need to run? Our heart rate speeds up, breathing rate increases, our blood pressure rises and causes vasoconstriction, stomach acid drops, cortisol increases, sex hormone production reduces, and we become hyper alert.
Our autonomic nervous system moves into a fight or flight mode making us more sympathetic dominant. Typically, our body should be able to switch between the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the autonomic nervous system, and the ability to do so and balance the two is what makes us physically and mentally resilient.
Why do we gain weight under perpetual stress?
Two key points to keep in mind are the words perpetual and perceived. Stress as a situation of running from the tiger is a true state of emergency. When we train ourselves to feel that state of emergency for several things every day, we are no longer able to move between sympathetic and parasympathetic states easily. This keeps us in perpetual stress. When we are more sympathetic dominant, we tend to think many things in our lives are in a state of emergency. These make situations are perceived states of stress by us. It is not that we are imagining it, but in our present state of body, we feel many situations as that true state of emergency. How does this affect weight gain?
1. When we are under perpetual stress, our body produces more cortisol—the stress hormone. Cortisol and insulin are two sides of a coin. Cortisol keeps our body in a constant state of inflammation, driving insulin resistance and preventing our ability to lose weight. Cortisol elevation weakens digestive function, contributing to poor digestive health. Even if we eat the right foods, we might struggle to breakdown, metabolise, and utilise the nutrients. It contributes to weight gain in the belly.
2. Remember that cortisol and insulin work in tandem. When the body is attempting to manage stress, it causes the liver to continuously release glucose into the bloodstream. This should be a temporary way in which the body tries to help navigate stress. Instead, it leads to frequently elevated blood glucose levels, insulin that tries to keep up and eventually cannot do so, and higher fat being formed from all the available sugar.
3. Stress immediately impacts the quality of sleep. We are unable to fall asleep, and if we do fall asleep, we find ourselves waking up frequently. Poor sleep drives further insulin resistance and inflammation. We fall into a vicious cycle.
4. When we have slept poorly, we have higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone and poor sleep makes us extra hungry. We also have low levels of the satiety hormone, which makes us feel unsatiated even when we eat adequately. We fall into a loop of poor food choices and overeating.
5. Excess cortisol leads to visceral fat accumulation as well. This is the fat around the midriff. Visceral fat is a dangerous fat that causes further insulin resistance, inflammation, and predisposition to cardiovascular disease.
How to navigate stressful times?
Let’s bring our attention back to the key words of perceived and perpetual. We must ask ourselves what the specific sources of our stress are. If specific people and events seem to trigger the cascade within us, identifying these can be very helpful. Physiology and psychology share a consensual relationship. State of inflammation in the body can make us predisposed to perceiving stress more frequently. In turn, perpetual stress makes our physiology imbalanced. What can we do?
1. Creating a string scaffolding for our body to navigate times of stress is the key. Think of the framework of eating protein, fibre, and fat. Protein holds first place in stress management within the body. Fibre comes from non-starchy vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants and whole grains, both of which improve digestive function. Healthy fats like ghee stoke the fire of digestion, helping it to metabolise and utilise nutrients.
2. Insulin and blood sugar regulation can be sensitive in times of stress as there is increased cortisol output. You might find blood sugar fluctuations occurring more rapidly. Preempting this, try to cut out all the simple sugars in your diet. It might take mental effort, but your resilience to stress will increase manyfold. Be mindful that poor sleep is driving you to choose wrong foods and avoid succumbing to it.
3. Make a grounded meditation a part of your life. Take twenty minutes each afternoon and evening to lie down and listen to a guided visualisation.
4. Explore your own stress response and identify if you gravitate towards fear, anger, or depression. Fear is a sign that your nervous system needs more calming. Anger is a sign that your digestion and liver need care. Understanding specific responses can help you find more specific tools.
5. Breath work is a miracle! We’ve all heard about the benefits, we may practice our pranayama in a class, but perhaps we could spend some intentional time sitting in nature and just slowing down the breath. Five minutes of this as a daily practice improves your ability to navigate stressful times.
Tools are many, but we must utilise them to help us, rather than feeling frustrated at doing something. We all have a pattern that we let go of all healthy habits under stress. However, by having some non-negotiable practices daily, we increase resilience to stress and avoid weight gain under stress. Have a wonderful day!
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)