Most people admit that when they’re under stress, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain. Whether eating to fill an emotional need or grabbing fast food simply because there’s no time to prepare something healthy, a stressed-out lifestyle is rarely a healthy one.
Weight gain when under stress may be at least partly due to the body’s system of hormonal checks and balances, which can promote weight gain when you’re stressed out.
Cortisol and Weight Gain
Cortisol is a critical hormone, secreted by the adrenal glands, and has many actions in the body, including the stimulation of fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulating insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The result of these actions can be an increase in appetite.
Cortisol has been called the “stress hormone” because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress, and the normal pattern of cortisol secretion (with levels highest in the early morning and lowest at night) can be altered.
This disruption of cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area. Belly fat or “toxic fat” is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease including heart attacks and strokes.
Ways to Manage Stress
So, what helps to lose weight when stressed besides watching what you ingest?
Get out and move. Many types of aerobic and anaerobic exercise have been shown to be effective in reducing or managing stress.
2. Yoga and Tai Chi
Some of the popular mindfulness exercise programs such as yoga and Tai Chi are also great for reducing stress by giving your mind some time off.
Consider a meditation practice to get real downtime. Other techniques to unload include listening to music, spending time in nature and prayer. Visualization and journaling can be used to get quiet and unravel a stressed mind.
4. Deep breathing
Take a moment to get some deep breaths is very effective at reducing stress levels. You’d be surprised at how much better you feel after you’ve done this for a few minutes. It may take practice to get into the flow, but it becomes easier as you do it. Consider breathing in some calming essential oils like lavender and chamomile to soothe your senses.
5. Relax Your Muscles
Stress causes your muscles to tense up and lead to muscle pain making you more stressed. Relaxation techniques such as stretching, getting massages and soaking in a hot tub with Epsom salt can help to reduce muscle tension.
6. Let it Out
Don’t hold it all in. Talking to someone about things that are bothering you can help to take the edge off and make you feel supported. It is also important to be aware of your self-talk and keep it positive. We all do it, but it is helpful to be mindful of your thoughts to help reduce stress.
7. Take Time Off
Find time to do things you enjoy. Make it a regular habit to do things that bring you happiness every day. Consider relaxing habits like reading, taking walks, enjoying the outdoors, gardening, playing golf, doing puzzles, artwork or even dancing.
8. Let Go
Don’t try to control everything. Try to manage the things within your control and let go of things that spiral you out of your control. Accept imperfection as the new perfection. When things go wrong, look for the silver lining and even bring in a little sense of humor to help get you through the hurdles.
9. Watch Your Diet
Eating a well-balanced diet will help you to feel better. Including a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, proteins and good fats will reduce stress on your body and mind. Avoiding sugar and processed carbohydrates will reduce the stress and help your mood. Skipping meals will only add more stress to your body.
10. Slow Down
Today’s world can get busy and sometimes we need to just chill. Find time in your day to bring things down a notch. For example, don’t try to do everything all at once. Remind yourself that tomorrow is always another day. It’s ok to carve out some time to do absolutely nothing. It will help to bring down your cortisol levels and give your overworked adrenals a break.
Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response. In a recent American Psychological Association survey, a whopping 40% of the respondents reported dealing with stress in this way, while 42% reported watching television for more than 2 hours a day to deal with their stress. So, it is twofold – being a couch potato increases the temptation to overeat and that inactivity means those extra calories aren’t going to get burned off.
Emotional eating is usually “stress eating” and is all about using food to make yourself feel better—eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. You might reach for a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, order a pizza if you’re bored or lonely, or swing by the fast food drive-through after a stressful day at work.
Occasionally using food as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed and the weight you can’t seem to lose.
Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. Here are some clues to tell them apart:
- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually.
- Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
- Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re usually more aware of what you’re doing.
- Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
- Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
- Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
Mindful eating is a practice that helps you develop awareness of eating habits and allows you to pause between your triggers and your actions. Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, you feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now. Because you’ve tried to resist in the past and failed, you believe that your willpower just isn’t good enough to help you stop. But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think.
Solutions for Managing Stress
It’s worth looking at balancing your cortisol levels, as well as, taking supplements to reduce stress, encourage weight loss and increase your energy levels more naturally than sugar and coffee.
When I work with patients, I like to look at all the factors – emotional and physical – that are keeping them in a state of stress which in turn prevents them from achieving their weight loss goals.
Taking the edge off daily stress can be so empowering but sometimes it takes some supplementation. While your doctor might recommend anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications for stress and overeating, I prefer to follow a Functional Medicine approach.
A great all-around formula my clients do well on is one that addresses nervous tension, calms agitation and anxiety and has no side effects other than to help them feel better. StressArrest™ usually helps my patients take the upper hand in managing stress which in turn gets them out of their emotional eating patterns.
Another important stress reducer I recommend is a tasty chewable allowing for rapid and efficient absorption and assimilation. This means PharmaGABA™ benefits are felt very quickly. GABA is a naturally occurring amino acid in the brain and is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter that serves as a critical calming agent for the body, helping to combat stress and anxiety.
Is stress keeping you from managing your diet so that you can begin dropping excess pounds? Contact me today and let’s work together to lower your cortisol levels, reduce stress and shift to a healthier lifestyle. This strategy will help you to enjoy a healthier diet and even encourage more weight loss.
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