Beat stress - the enemy of weight loss!
Updated: Oct 2
We all feel stress at times, and some stress is helpful – it gets us out of bed in the morning and motivates us to get things done. But prolonged stress increases blood glucose, prevents weight loss and affects health and wellbeing. We can't eliminate stress, but there are steps we can take to reduce its negative impact on our health and our weight loss. Decide on one action you can take this week to combat stress - we can do this!
Our stress response
The central nervous system controls the way we respond to stress. When we sense danger, the hypothalamus in the brain communicates with the adrenal gland leading to the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Under conditions of acute stress the release of these hormones allows us to mount a ‘fight or flight’ response – our heart starts racing, our breath quickens and our muscles get ready for action. All of this is helpful if we are trying to run away from danger, however, once the danger has passed, all systems should return to normal.
The impact of chronic stress
When the stress response is triggered often and over a prolonged period, it can be damaging to health and increase risk for many health conditions such as anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration issues, digestive problems, headaches, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Chronic stress and anxiety is a significant barrier to weight loss. If you are suffering from chronic stress and anxiety you are likely to have more difficulty losing weight, so taking action to manage stress and your response to stress will be critical to your success.
How stress leads to weight gain
There are several ways that chronic stress leads to weight gain:
a) We eat more when we feel stressed
At a basic level, when we are chronically stressed, we often eat more and choose less healthy foods. Our eating behaviours change, we may eat to console ourselves or eat without thinking. This was shown by a study which analysed the impact of stress hormones on eating behaviours in premenopausal women. Researchers found that the women with higher cortisol levels ate more and had a higher intake of sweet food than others.
Many of us gained weight during COVID lockdowns. An analysis of 41 studies on weight change during COVID found the highest weight gain occurred amongst those who reported stress, anxiety and/or depression at the time.
b) Stress raises blood glucose and insulin levels
In addition to changes in the way we eat, stress hormones affect the mechanisms we have to maintain normal blood glucose and insulin levels, with a negative impact on our weight.
Cortisol raises blood glucose levels to give us the energy we need for a ‘fight or flight’ response. When energy is needed, cortisol causes the liver to make new glucose from muscle protein and fats – a process called gluconeogenesis. Under normal circumstances, when blood glucose is raised, insulin drives glucose from the blood into the cells of our tissues, muscles and liver. However, when cortisol is high it acts as a barrier to insulin undertaking this function. Over time the body can become insulin resistant as it has to produce more and more insulin to control blood glucose levels. Under conditions of prolonged stress, glucose and insulin levels may stay elevated. As Insulin is a fat storage hormone, raised insulin levels leads to higher level of fat storage and weight gain.
c) Cortisol increases risk of abdominal obesity
Chronically raised cortisol levels increase abdominal obesity and visceral fat, a risk factor metabolic health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some people are genetically pre-disposed to this, and are more sensitive to the impact of cortisol. Women who are suffering from chronic stress can experience an increase in abdominal fat even when they are otherwise slender, which is a direct result of raised cortisol.
d) Stress can lead to poor sleep
Not getting enough sleep can be a particular stressor to the body, and can lead to metabolic health problems and weight gain. When we are short of sleep we are also more likely to choose foods high in calories and carbohydrates.
How to reduce the impact of stress
Whilst we may not be able to eliminate stress, there are lifestyle and nutritional changes we can make to reduce the impact it has on our health.
1. Increase your physical activity – taking regular exercise is a great way to reduce the impact of stress, anxiety and depression and there is good evidence supporting the benefits of exercise for stress. This doesn’t have to mean heavy workouts in the gym, just going for regular walks or working in the garden can be very beneficial.
2. Find time to relax and unwind – make time for quiet time and relaxation – spend time enjoying a book, practicing yoga or meditation, taking a bath or on hobbies you enjoy. Don’t feel guilty about this, studies show that people who make time to look after themselves in this way have a lower risk of suffering from stress and burnout.
3. Spend time in nature - being outdoors in green spaces, such as in gardens, forests or the countryside reduces physical and psychological stress and even spending as little as 10 minutes in nature has been found to bring significant psychological benefit.
4. Address sleep issues - try and address any sleep problems. Advice on how to do this can be found at the NHS Every Mind Matters website.
5. Reduce your screen time - try and reduce the time you spend on your phone and electronic devices. Several research studies have shown more time spent on phones is linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety.
There are several nutritional strategies which may be helpful to those who are chronically stressed. Avoiding foods which disturb the microbiome and are pro-inflammatory and adding foods which reduce inflammation may help combat some of the damaging effects of stress and anxiety. Some evidence-based suggestions are given below:
1. Eat real food, avoid sugar and highly processed foods - By eating real, fresh food, cooked from scratch, with plenty of protein, healthy fats, fruit and vegetables we are more able to stay healthy and be more resilient to the impact of stress.
The food we eat influences our gut microbiome and levels of inflammation in our bodies, which can affect our levels of anxiety. Sugars and highly processed foods, including refined vegetable oils, are pro-inflammatory and research shows that people who eat more ultra-processed foods have higher stress levels than others. Anxiety and anxiety-related conditions are characterised by chronic inflammation and people with these conditions have more inflammatory markers than others. Avoiding sugars and highly processed foods will help to reduce inflammation and associated anxiety.
Eating nutrient-poor processed foods over time may have a significant impact on our wellbeing. One study followed nearly 27,000 people for over 5 years, and whilst all were free of depressive symptoms at the beginning of the study, those who developed these symptoms during the 5 years were more likely to eat higher amounts of ultra-processed foods.
2. Low carbohydrate and ketogenic diets - whilst more research is needed in this area, there is some indication that low-carbohydrate, high fat diets may be beneficial in reducing anxiety. Low carbohydrate diets may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress which are involved in the stress response and increased anxiety.
3. Eat fish frequently – regularly eating fish is good for our wellbeing and helpful for reducing anxiety. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids deficiency to be associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel, and fish roe and krill oil are particularly good sources of omega 3 fatty acids.
4. Include turmeric in your diet – many studies have shown that supplementation with curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, can be very effective at reducing anxiety. The absorption of tumeric is assisted when eaten with a source of fat.
5. Magnesium is a common deficiency in the general population, and symptoms of deficiency are very similar to symptoms of stress – tiredness, irritability, anxiety, headache, muscle cramps and gastrointestinal spasms. When we are stressed the body releases magnesium so that we may become more deficient – a vicious circle! Taking a magnesium supplement can be beneficial for reducing both the physical and mental symptoms of stress. Food sources of magnesium include nuts and seeds such as cashew and Brazil nuts, hemp, flax, chia and sunflower seeds, tofu, black beans, Swiss chard, spinach and dark chocolate.
6. Vitamin D – low levels of vitamin D have been found in people with anxiety and in those with depression. Supplementation with vitamin D in those with deficiency has led to improvements in those conditions. We get most of our vitamin D from the impact of the sun’s rays on our skin, but we can get some from foods such as oily fish, meat, eggs and some fortified foods. However, a vitamin D supplement is recommended for everyone over winter months.
Time to take action
We will never eliminate stress, but we can take steps to look after ourselves and reduce the impact stress has upon us. So let's decide we can take one action this week to reduce the impact of stress. Examples of an action you could take this week are shown below:
Reduce the time you spend on your phone, particularly looking at news apps!
Take a half an hour walk every morning to wake you up at the start of the day
Make a turmeric yoghurt dip or add turmeric to a meal this week
Check your vitamin D levels
Find a yoga class
As well as being harmful to your health, prolonged stress and anxiety acts as a barrier to weight loss. Whilst it would be unrealistic to expect to eliminate stress, there are things we can do to reduce the impact of stress on our health and wellbeing and help us with weight loss. So let's take action to stop stress getting in the way of our weight loss!