The Hidden Impact Of Stress On Your Waistline
You’re hitting the gym four times a week, you’re eating well and cutting down on alcohol, you’re doing everything you should but you just can’t seem to shift those stubborn pounds. In fact, you seem to be gaining them. If you’re struggling to keep your weight in check there could be one thing you haven’t thought of that’s hindering the process. Stress.
While the wired, high-alert feelings of stress may seem like calorie burners in the short term, recent studies have found that chronic or long-term stress can actually increase the rate at which new fat cells are formed in the body. Add in the fact that being stressed can cause us to crave fatty foods and reach for the booze and it becomes apparent that it’s a real issue for weight loss.
Both men and women experience stress but studies suggest women are better at dealing with it than men. Alongside common symptoms including anxiety, stomach upsets, muscle tension and a rapid heart rate, men are more likely to experience depression caused by stress and also to withdraw socially.
Not only could not talking about stress be causing us to suffer for longer, but it could also be adding notches to our belt.
What exactly is stress?
Feeling stressed is an increasingly common problem, with 74% of respondents to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 study saying they felt so stressed they were overwhelmed or unable to cope at some point in the past year.
In small doses, however, stress is good for us. A completely natural reaction, it’s the body’s way of dealing with demands or threats – real or imagined.
When we feel stressed our body goes into fight or flight mode. Stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are released to help us respond to the ‘danger’ at hand, our heart pumps faster, muscles contract and our senses become sharper. In small doses, stress helps us stay focused, energetic and alert and it can get you through that tough presentation or help you secure a personal best in your next running race.
It’s when the stress is sustained that it becomes a problem.
While stress helped our ancestors stay alert to danger and run from predators, in this sabre-toothed-tiger-less world, emotional issues and work deadlines can cause a spike in stress levels but without the subsequent energetic release. Too much stress can constantly have our body in flight or flight mode and that can be a problem. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed and result in damage to the immune system and heart, increase our chances of health problems, reduce life expectancy and also, cause weight issues.
How does stress affect the waistline?
Stress affects your weight in a number of ways causing you to eat more, make bad choices and develop more fat cells. For starters cortisol, a hormone that’s released when you’re stressed increases appetite and causes your blood sugar to drop, meaning you’re more likely to indulge cravings and reach for energy-dense, comforting junk food.
Nearly half of the respondents to a YouGov study on stress reported eating too much or making unhealthy food choices when stressed, while 29% said they drank more alcohol. But it’s not just stress eating habits that are at play. In a report published in Cell Metabolism Journal, researchers at Stanford University looked at the levels of hormones called glucocorticoids produced when we’re stressed. These hormones usually fluctuate throughout the day but when they were kept at a constantly high level – as happens with long-term stress – they caused an increased development of fat cells and weight gain.
In experiments, mice with a constant high glucocorticoid level gained double the amount of weight over 21 days as those with normal levels. It’s thought a similar amount of weight gain would be found in humans.
How can we keep stress in check?
Identifying that stress may be affecting your weight is one thing, the tricky bit is keeping that stress in check. Try the following tactics to manage your stress effectively:
Exercise releases mood-boosting endorphins which can help relieve tension and stress. If you find you’re still thinking about whatever’s stressing you during your run or in yoga, then try an activity that requires more concentration. Tennis, squash or a fast-paced boxing class will give your mind, less time to wander.
Make a plan
Take a step back and look at what’s causing you stress and what you can do about it. If you’ve got too much on at work are there some tasks you can delegate? If you’re having a relationship or financial worries is there someone you can talk to or steps you can take to resolve some issues? Set yourself realistic expectations and goals for relieving the pressure and don’t feel bad about saying no to things.
Take some time out
UK charity the Mental Health Foundation recommends taking time to relax and look after yourself to cope with stress. Sleeping, meditation, breathing exercises, eating well and doing positive things for yourself can all help.
If all else fails or you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling with stress, contact your GP.
Here are some of the best stress-busting spa offerings for the men looking to find a place to rebalance.
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