Author: Dr. Sejal Desai
In our society, stress is a factor in everyday life.
Excess stress can cause headaches, muscle tension, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, depression, and new research shows it may also wreak havoc on metabolism. There are 2 mechanisms of action for this.
First, food is a source of comfort and a temporary means of reducing stress for many people. For example, say you have an argument with your boss, so at lunchtime, you get a burger, fries, and large milkshake.
The second mechanism is how your body chemically reacts to stress. When you’re stressed, the body releases hormones (such as cortisol and epinephrine) that increase your breathing rate, divert blood from your digestive system to your muscles and brain, trigger the release of glucose into the bloodstream for quick energy and start to mobilize stored fat.
For our ancestors, this “fight-or-flight” response was crucial because it helped to protect them against stress – these actions would burn off all of that extra glucose coursing through their blood vessels. But today’s stressors rarely require a physical response – so the extra glucose remains in your bloodstream where it triggers the release of insulin. Insulin then converts the glucose to stored “visceral fat”, most commonly around the mid-section. These fat cells that lie deep within the abdomen have been linked to an increase in both diabetes and heart disease.
Here are some proven techniques that can relieve stress and therefore improve your weight loss efforts:
Exercise not only helps you lose weight but it is the best stress-buster! By improving your health, well-being, and self-image, exercise bolsters your body’s ability to handle stress. Even with a simple activity such as walking, you begin to produce a cascade of biochemical interactions that help counter the negative effects of stress hormones by controlling insulin and sugar levels.
The key is to choose cardio and strength training exercises and then keep workouts to a length that doesn’t exhaust you (this could be as little as 20 minutes a day, three to five days a week).
Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention in order to find calm and clarity. It helps you become more aware of your thoughts and actions, including those that relate to food. This can lower high blood pressure and help you manage stress, which drives some people to eat. As meditation has become better known in Western cultures, scientists have begun to quantify its physical benefits in hundreds of studies.
There are many ways to meditate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that most types of meditation have these four things in common:
- A quiet location. You can choose where to meditate – a comfy chair, while walking, etc.
- A specific comfortable posture, such as sitting, lying down, standing, or walking.
- A focus of attention. Find something to focus on – a word or phrase, your breath, or something else.
- An open attitude. It’s normal to have other thoughts while you meditate. Try not to get too interested in those thoughts. Keep bringing your attention back to your object of focus.
To start your meditation practice, find a quiet place, and turn off your cell phone and other distractions. Next, pick a focus word or brief phrase that’s meaningful to you. Some examples are “peace,” or “om.” Then, sit comfortably, close your eyes, relax your body and mind, and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you are breathing out, say your word silently to yourself. Don’t worry about thoughts coming in and out of your mind. Gently release them and return to the repetition. To achieve relaxation, use this technique for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day.
Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night
Nearly two-thirds of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. When we don’t get enough rest, cortisol levels rise, making us feel hungry and less satisfied with the food we eat. Skimping on sleep sets your brain up to make bad decisions. It dulls activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, the locus of decision-making, and impulse control so you don’t have the mental clarity to make good decisions. Plus, when you’re overtired, your brain’s reward centers rev up, looking for something that feels good. So while you might be able to deter comfort food cravings when you’re well-rested, your sleep-deprived brain may have trouble doing so.
Avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine
Cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks (soft drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate) can cause cortisol levels to rise, stress to increase, blood sugar to drop and hunger to prevail.
The bottom line is that even though you exercise and eat well, chronic stress can prevent you from losing weight. However, if you make these few habits a part of your daily life, you can combat the detrimental effects of stress on your weight loss efforts.