I’m frequently asked the question “why is it that my skinny friend can eat whatever they like and not put on weight but I always struggle?” It is frustrating and I hear you. There are those people for whom weight control is second nature and not something they ever have to think consciously about. There are many reasons for it. Genetics is one for sure, but one of the things depicted by our genetic makeup is how we respond to stress, the levels of hormones we produce and how this influences the way that we eat and move.
Let’s think about stress for a moment. We all define stress differently and what is acutely stressful to one person won’t bother another, while there are some circumstances that will be stressful to most of us. Part of that difference is our personality and our make up. I rarely get nervous about public speaking, at least in part because I have to do it so often I have become accustomed to it, but for many this would be a highly stressful situation. I would be very stressed if you asked me to leap from a plane with a parachute, whereas for others this would be a tremendous thrill! But rather than these isolated stressful events, what about the level of chronic stress you are under and how does that affect you?
In the acute situation we have the classic fight or flight reaction. Levels of stimulatory hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol rise, raising our heart rate, releasing glucose and fat into the bloodstream ready to fuel a burst of activity. This is beneficial in the short term to cope with the acute stress. However long term stress results in a lower but chronic elevation of the stress hormones including cortisol. It is the effects of this longer duration stress that can have an effect not just on your weight, but where excess fat is stored.
While cortisol in the acute situation is beneficial, chronically elevated levels have been associated with a higher level of abdominal fat. This is the worst place from a health perspective to store fat. Excessive fat stored around the internal organs (termed visceral fat) raises your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver and certain cancers. High cortisol may also depress immune function, raise blood pressure, affect thyroid function and blood sugar control. It is clear that our ability to use stress acutely to our advantage – to give that all-important presentation for example – but then switch off and relax again is key to good health and weight control.
If you never switch off and are chronically stressed, the other thing that suffers is your sleep. To all the insomniacs out there I am empathetic. I too struggle enormously with my sleep when I have things on my mind. But that lack of sleep does us no good whatsoever. For a start sleep deprivation has a further elevating effect on cortisol and other hormones that have an influence on weight or on body composition such that you are likely to lose muscle and gain body fat. A lack of sleep also leaves you feeling lethargic and lacking the motivation to exercise during the day or to eat well. To compound matters you are more likely to reach for food as an energy pick-me-up and often the foods you choose are the worst in terms of weight control – fatty and sugary ‘comfort’ foods.
So what can we do to help us to manage our stress levels? The first thing is to simply recognise that stress may be a problem. That sounds obvious but I have dealt with many clients who have not recognised the issue because they have been living with it for so long. Signs of chronic stress include regularly not sleeping well, using alcohol, drugs or food to help you cope, bursts of anger or other emotional outbursts over seemingly small events, chronic fatigue and lack of motivation to see friends or family, or to do anything outside of your usual routine. You then need to build strategies for how you can lower your stress levels. Mind-body techniques are now well established and have good scientific backing, they are no longer just for the hippies amongst us! Meditation, yoga, mindfulness techniques and Tai Chi are all incredibly useful for slowing the mind and bringing you back into focus. Deep breathing techniques and just taking 5 minutes out of your day to slow down may be all it takes. Exercise is a fabulous stress reliever, provided you don’t overdo it (excessive exercise only adds to stress on the body). Spending time with family and friends, and doing things outside of work that you really enjoy is also a simple but very effective way of reducing stress levels.
For the insomniacs build good sleep hygiene into your evening routine. Screens including TV and computers should not be used for at least the last hour before bed, avoid caffeine after 4pm, try having a warm bath and drink before bed and eliminate all flashing lights in your bedroom such as mobile devices, digital clocks and so on. If you do wake in the night and find yourself tossing and turning, stay in bed and turn on a low light to read with. Obviously avoid workbooks, but a fictional (not too gripping) novel will usually do the trick and help you back to sleep. Better sleep, manageable stress levels, daily movement and a healthy diet all come together to give you the best control of your weight and your health.