Every wondered why no matter how carefully you follow your diet you just can’t seem to shed those last few kilos. Or why no matter how long you spend at the gym the weight just won’t shift? Do you often crave sweets when you are tired or sad? Do you find yourself comfort eating when you have had a hard day? The answer could be due to STRESS!
How Does Stress Protect You?
Stress is a primitive and physiological response designed to protect us from the sabre tooth tigers in life. In our modern day society, you don’t face tigers on a daily basis, but you have a variety of other stressors such as relationship breakdowns, work deadlines, financial pressure, childcare responsibilities as well as everyday stress such as getting stuck in traffic and having your computer freeze. Our primate brain can’t tell the difference between being faced with an external threat such as being attacked or being in a car accident from internal stress such as work pressure or an argument with a partner. The body reacts in exactly the same- that is to activate the fight or flight response- our natural survival instinct which protects us form danger by releasing adrenaline, Cortisol and other chemicals to put our body into high alert in order to fight the threat or to flight.
Although you may not have as strong a physical reaction to internal stressors as you would, notice to an external threat such as being attacked by a dog- the process is the same. When the adrenalin is realised in your system a variety of changes happen to protect you (and improve performance). These changes include the blood flow moving away from your digestive system to transport energy into your muscles for quick movement and to your brain so you can make quick decisions. Essentially your primitive brain decides that if you are about to be eaten by a tiger then your blood can be better directed to other parts of the body than your digestion.
Now this is great in a job interview as you want to be alert and on the ball and the increased blood flow to your brain improves your thinking. However, this is not a helpful state to be eating your lunch in- which is often the case after a busy stressful morning at work.
Why Is It Important to Reduce Stress Response?
In extreme cases of stress when the blood flow moves away from your stomach you may notice feelings of butterflies, nausea or a sinking feeling. In less extreme situations, this process still occurs and can significantly affect your ability to be able to digest the food you have just eaten and therefore be able to absorb the nutrients. Low-level chronic stress has been associated with a multitude of digestive problems including constipation, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome and crohn’s disease as well as an inability to lose weight.
One of the stress chemicals cortisol affects the insulin levels that can lead to weight gain. Cortisol can also deplete serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is our feel good chemical and responsible for regulating our appetite and mood as well as sleep. The stress response turns off pleasure signals so we often don’t get enjoyment from our food, which leads to a tendency to overeat. The stress response also stops our bodies from recognising that food has been consumed. When we are stressed we also tend to eat on the run, which further reduces our ability to digest our food, and often our food choices are based more on convenience than on nutrition. This all combined leads to overeating and poor absorption of our food. Our body then becomes depleted of nutrients and sends us signals for more food- often in the form of cravings and the cycle continues.
Try these steps to reduce stress and shed some kilos:
5 Easy Steps To Reduce Stress and Lose Weight
Reduce Stress and Lose Weight Step #1. Stop the inner critic
What is the inner critic? You know that little voice inside which is often very harsh and critical of the things you do, pointing out all your flaws and minimising your strengths. Everyone has an inner critic; just sometimes, it is louder than at other times. The inner critic really takes hold when it comes to our appearance and weight. Ninety percent (90%) of women have negative thoughts when they look in the mirror. Research indicates that for someone who is suffering from anorexia when they look in the mirror, the same part of the brain gets activated as a Vietnam veteran when having a flashback- essentially the brain is having a stress response based on your own body. To reduce stress response, be aware of your own inner critic and some of the messages it tells you about food and your body. You may not be able to turn it off but at least try to turn it down so it’s more like a song on the radio in the background rather than a megaphone in your ear.
Reduce Stress and Lose Weight Step #2. Deal with your everyday stress
Make a list of situations that are causing you stress or you are worried about and then come up with solutions to them. Engaging in regular relaxation or mediation has been shown to reduce the overactivity of the emotional mind and significantly reduce stress. Engage in regular exercise to help balance the stress chemicals (and of course increase metabolism, which leads to weight loss). Do one thing every single day that gives you pleasure– not only will this reduce stress but you also become less reliant on food as the only source of pleasure
Reduce Stress and Lose Weight Step #3. Get a good night’s sleep
The stress response is all about being alert and active- and sleep is the opposite of that! When you are sleep deprived your body produces more ghrelin the hormone that tells you it’s time to eat and less leptin the hormone that says it’s time to stop eating. So add those two together and we end up eating more to compensate for the lack of sleep. Try a relaxation track or warm bath before bed to feel more relaxed at bedtime. Turn off the TV and laptop at least 30 minutes before you go to bed as the artificial light sends false signal to your brain to stay awake. In addition, cut out the coffee- caffeine activates the adrenal glands, which create a stress response. So not only will caffeinated drinks keep you awake, they also keep you in a stressed state.
Reduce Stress and Lose Weight Step #4. Consider other factors placing stress on your digestive symptoms
Undiagnosed food intolerance or sensitivities can cause physical stress to the digestive system, which also affect your ability to digest food and absorb nutrients. Common food intolerances include gluten, and dairy, which create inflammation throughout the digestive system reducing your nutrient absorption and making you more susceptible to stress.
Reduce Stress and Lose Weight Step #5. Engage in mindful eating
Even gotten to the end of a packet of chips, but the last thing you remember was opening them? Or before you know it you have eaten the whole pocket of chocolate bisects as you sit in front of the TV. This is what we call “mindless eating’ and occurs when we are multitasking or eating in a stressed state.
Mindful eating is the opposite of this- it is paying attention to the flavour, smell and texture of each and every mouthful. Research indicates that mindful eaters eat less, report less cravings, have a lower BMI and report more satisfaction from their meals. When we eat mindlessly, we often miss the body’s cues to say that we have had enough to eat. Mindfulness is not about changing thoughts or feeling but rather being aware of those thoughts and feelings but not getting stuck in them.
Try this simple exercise with a sultana to practice mindful eating and then use the same skills at each meal:
- Take a sultana and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb. Take a few seconds to look at it and really notice the different colours and textures. Notice the way the light falls on the ridges.
- Take the sultana and place it in between your fingertips. Gently place some pressure and notice the sensations in between your fingertips.
- Bring the sultana up to your nose and take a deep exhalation. Really notice the smell or fragrance you experience.
- Now bring the sultana up to your lips. Notice what it feels like on your lips and notice what is happening in your mouth, are you already starting to salivate?
- Now place the sultana into your mouth. Gently roll it around your tongue and notice any changes in taste on the different areas of your tongue. Spend a few seconds really noticing what this experience is like.
- Now take a bite of the sultana, notice any differences in taste you may experience as you bite into it. Notice any desires to keep chewing or to swallow and just sit if you can sit with these desires without acting on them.
- Now when you are ready swallow the sultana. Notice what it feels like as it travels down your throat. Are there any differences in taste or texture?
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