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The online dictionary from Cambridge University defines stress as: “Worry caused by a difficult situation, or something that causes this condition.”
But most of us don’t need a definition because we’ve had first-hand experience with psychological strain and pressure.
Small amounts of stress may be desirable, beneficial, and even healthy. For example, positive stress can cause a student to study before an important exam. It can motivate you to work hard and gain a raise on the job. And in athletes, it can improve sports performance.
Too much stress is bad, however—especially for your health.
Stress occurs when we perceive a situation as threatening, and when feel an inadequate ability to cope. The nervous system may go into the “fight or flight” response, where we want either to stand and fight (face the situation) or flee from it. During this response, we may overreact to a micro-stressor or minor inconvenience, such as running late for a lunch appointment. This can cause a racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, secretion of adrenaline and cortisol (called the “stress hormone”), perspiration, constricted veins, and digestive discomfort.
If this “fight or flight” response occurs repeatedly, health problems may result. Excessive stress levels increase the risk of ulcers, heart attacks, strokes, mental conditions such as depression—and weight gain.
When you experience a stressful situation, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol may rise dramatically. This increase can lead to various physical modifications in your body’s natural regulatory networks. For example, elevated cortisol levels are known to create psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as physiological conditions, including hypoglycaemia, illness, fever, pain, a feeling of physical exertion, and an elevated body temperature.
When stress occurs, the “fight or flight” response and the increased cortisol levels trick your body into thinking it requires more calories to deal with the situation. After all, our cave-dwelling ancestors needed calories to outrun a predator or to engage in a fight with one. At the same time, the boosted cortisol elevates your insulin levels, your blood sugar drops, and you start to crave foods loaded with fat and sugar.
Eating these types of foods does help with stress. In fact, Jason Perry Block, MD, an assistant professor at America’s Harvard Medical School, reports that overeating foods high in fat and sugar can be a source of solace and can lower stress. “This happens, in part, because the body releases chemicals in response to food that might have a direct calming effect,” says Block.
Nutritional biochemist Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, agrees, adding that stress may be directly responsible for gaining abdominal fat. As he puts it, “More stress equals more cortisol equals higher appetite for junk food equals more belly fat.”
Therefore, if you experience stress repeatedly and don’t deal with it effectively to combat or eliminate the “fight or flight” response, you may overeat and gain weight, particularly in the abdomen.
In 2013, the Great British Bedtime Report revealed that more than half of adults in the UK don’t sleep well. According to the BBC earlier this year, “Many UK adults are sleep-deprived thanks to their busy lifestyles.” Sometimes sleeplessness is due to stress; in fact, scientists have found that worry is a major cause of insomnia.
Lack of sleep can be powerful component in weight gain. Sleeplessness disrupts the balance of chemicals in your body that affect your appetite. In addition, humans tend to crave fattening carbohydrates when tired from lack of sleep.
In a recent study, dieters who were sleep-deprived lost substantially less weight than a corresponding group who were allowed sufficient rest.
So if you’re dieting, be sure you get enough sleep.
Instead of bolting your food, slow down. Allow all your senses to experience eating. Smell the aromas, see the textures and colours, let your mouth feel the smoothness or crunchiness, and taste the differences between sweet and savoury.
In addition, become aware of whether you’re really hungry, or if you’re just eating because you can’t resist that package of Maltesers.
This practice is called “mindful eating,” and it has been shown to reduce the tendency to binge-eat and to minimize depression.
It goes without saying that exercise burns calories and promotes weight loss. In addition, aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease cortisol, the “stress hormone” that leads to overeating.
Aerobic exercise is also known to elicit the release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve your mood.
And besides helping you burn calories, exercise can speed your metabolism, so you burn even more!
Studies have shown that writing regularly in a journal is good for your health.
A great way to deal with stress is through writing down your experiences, thoughts, reactions, goals, etc. Not only will this keep your mind occupied, writing keeps your hands busy so you’re less likely to reach for a crisp.
Keeping a journal may enable you to better deal with stress by helping you explore and understand the causes of the worry and pressure you’re experiencing.
In addition, putting your eating, weight-loss, and exercise goals in writing may reinforce your commitment to losing weight.
Instead of focusing on food, seek out interests beyond eating that can relieve stress. For example, take up hiking or biking. Ask your Auntie Jane to teach you to crochet or knit. Read a book. Join a yoga class.
Getting a massage is another great way to relieve stress without adding kilos, so consider scheduling one at the Ella Di Rocco Wellness MediSpa.
Taking time to relieve stress in any of these ways can make you less likely to overeat.
If you have experienced weight gain, you may wish to check if this is due to an underactive thyroid.
In addition to weight gain, symptoms of hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland) can mimic some of those related to stress: fatigue, tiredness, lack of energy, and feelings of exhaustion even when you haven’t done anything to exhaust yourself.
Diagnosing hypothyroidism is traditionally done based on your symptoms and through results of tests—including blood tests that confirm low levels of thyroid hormones.
If hypothyroidism is established, you may be prescribed a daily synthetic thyroid hormone as an oral medication. This medicine helps restore proper hormone levels, and it can reverse hypothyroidism symptoms such as fatigue within one or two weeks. Weight gain may gradually be corrected by the medication, as well.
At the Ella Di Rocco Wellness MediSpa, we believe the best approach to thyroid health combines traditional and integrative treatments. We recommend Thyroflex (reflexes) testing in addition to blood work, urinalysis, and other methods of diagnosing hypothyroidism.
Once it has been determined that you have hypothyroidism, we may further recommend natural rather than synthetic hormone medication.
At Ella Di Rocco, for almost any hormone disorder we further recommend ancillary therapies as important adjuncts to traditional medicine. These may include osteopathic treatments, dietary support, nutritional supplements such as vitamins, and a bespoke exercise program. Together, these can accelerate fat burning and weight loss