Why does stress so often lead to overeating or going off our diets, when all you want to do is lose those inches. There are many reasons; let’s start with a bit of biochemistry, focusing on the hormone coritsol.
Cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), is produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands that reside atop each kidney. Itis normally released into the body in response to events and circumstances such aswaking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress.
The following is a typical example of how the stress response operates as its intended survival mechanism:
You’re faced with a stressor.
The adrenal glands secrete cortisol.Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles.Cortisol turns off insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, so that it is used right away..making it harder to lose inches. Cortisol narrows the arteries while epinephrine (another similar hormone) increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster.The individual addresses and resolves the situation.Hormone levels (ideally) return to normal.So what’s the problem? In short, the theory is that with our ever-stressed, fast-paced lifestyle, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly, which can wreak havoc on our health and keep us from losing inches. Sure, it’s all good when your source of stress is a boulder rolling down a mountain, coming straight toward your head; the body uses cortisol to propel you to action and move out of the way. But when the stress comes in smaller (but almost constant) doses, like a rude comment from a relative, or running out of time while cooking for a crowd, our bodies become overburdened with these hormones.
So how can repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain or adding inches? One way is via stimulating the body to deposit extra fat. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides (precursors of body fat) from storageand relocate them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deepin the abdomen). Cortisol also aids new, small fat cells’ development into maturefat cells, which is controlled by enzymes. More of these enzymes in the fat cells might mean greater amounts of cortisol produced, adding insult to injury (since the adrenals arealready pumping out cortisol).
A second way in which cortisol may be involved in weight gain has to do with regulation of blood sugar. Consistently high bloodglucose levels, along with insulin reduction, lead to cells that arestarved of glucose. But those cells are crying out for energy, and oneway to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain. This can leadto overeating. And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored asbody fat.
Another connection is cortisol’s effect on appetite andcravings for high-calorie foods. Studies have demonstrated a directassociation between cortisol levels and calorie intake. Cortisol may directly influence appetite and cravings by direct action in the brain; it alsoindirectly influences appetite by affecting other hormones and stressresponsive factors known to stimulate appetite.
Now that we understand how and why cortisol leads to weight gain, what can we do about it?
Prevention, of course. Learn and identify what factors cause you stress, and take steps to prevent them. For example, if too little sleep stresses you out the next day, go to bed earlier. If holiday shopping is your trigger, then make a list and shop online, or go to the mall during off-hours to avoid the crowds.
Be mindful about real hunger versus stress-induced appetite. This is a toughie for people who tend to eat to deal with stress. Food is comfort when stress takes hold, and the urge to eat feels a lot like real hunger. When you wander into the kitchen or place an order at a restaurant, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry, or if you’re eating for other reasons. If you are truly hungry, it will be easier to eat healthful foods. If you’re stressed, you may crave fatty and/or sweet foods. If we keep in mind that food will NOT solve our problems (and may create more of them), and learn other coping mechanisms for stress, we will be far better off.
Recognize when stress is creeping in, and act. Sometimes stress sneaks up on you. Like you think you’re all set for the holidays, but it seems that every hour someone is placing little demands on you that just keep piling up. Before that pile overwhelms you, say “no” where you can, or solicit help from your friends and family.
Deal gracefully with unexpected stress. Like if you’re cooking for company and you realize last minute that you’re out of a key ingredient. Or you’re wrapping up at work, ready to leave for vacation, and your boss springs on you, “Hey can you do this project by the end of the year?” Take a deep breath and focus on a solution, and once it’s over, don’t dwell!
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