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    Why Does Stress Lead to Weight Gain?

    stress-and-weight-gainChronic stress and anxiety has become all too common, despite all the wonderful technology designed to make life easier and provide  more efficient ways to get work done.  With so many people leading a stressful lifestyle, there is growing awareness of how stress damages the health. Medical research has brought to light the fact that chronic stress can sabotage every effort to deal with unwanted weight gain.

    Even over-exercising and strict dieting may contribute to weight gain.

    In 1936, Hans Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Originally, the meaning of the word included “good stress” such as exercise, winning a race, or setting and achieving goals. An increase in “good” stress will lead to an increase in results. Without change and challenge, life would be stagnant; without exercise that puts stress on muscle and bone, the muscles atrophy and the bones thin and fragile.

    Today, the term has come to have a primarily negative connotation, meaning those stresses that overtax the individual as a result of adverse or demanding circumstances. Because chronic stress has become a major health issue, along with anxiety and often leading to depression, it is no wonder that there is increased focus on the negative consequences of stress.

    Stress has evolved as a way to cope with emergencies, releasing adrenaline to trigger the “fight or flight” response. Once the danger has passed, the body returns to normal.  However, the kind of negative stresses that people have today, such as job loss, financial worries or stress at the workplace often lead to a sustained mental and emotional state of worry  without any way to burn off the stress.

    Our bodies are not designed to deal with sustained stress. Chronically elevated stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol will damage the health. Sustained stress can bring unwanted weight gain, and lead to diabetes.

    The role of the stress hormone cortisol is to help the body to recover after stress has passed.  Instead of declining rapidly as does adrenaline, cortisol levels will remain high, increasing appetite and stimulating the desire to eat more.

    Stress stimulates the craving for easy to eat, highly processed foods that are high in “bad” fat, refined carbohydrates, sugar and salt. For many, reaching for comfort foods becomes a way of dealing with stress.  Coping with stress with “emotional eating” turns out to have a dangerous backlash that can lead to harmful health conditions.

    Not only does stress cause cravings for comfort foods that are anything but comforting to the metabolism, it combines with the actions of the stress hormones to multiply the tendency to gain weight. While chowing down on the high-calorie foods, elevated cortisol reduces the body’s ability to burn the calories and increases the body’s tendency to store fat, often in the form of liver and abdominal fat. Chronic stress raises blood sugar and reduces the body’s ability to burn fat. It reduces the ability of the body cells to absorb and metabolize sugar, a serious condition that can lead to the onset of diabetes.

    The downward spiral continues when stress leads to insomnia.  A third of Americans suffer from insomnia, which over time will lead to yet more elevated cortisol levels and further impairs the body’s ability to control appetite.

    New research has revealed that strict dieting as a way to deal with weight gain will actually lower the metabolism and increase the tendency to store calories as fat.  Stressing about food and doing restrictive dieting will increase cortisol levels, with the result that there is increased weight gain instead of achieving a healthy weight. Strict dieting over time has an additional blacklash in that it will end up by diminishing critical muscle mass, including the heart muscle.  Because muscle tissue is metabolically active, muscle loss leads to a lower metabolic rate, a low-energy level that may lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, and increased fat storage. The sad truth is that a calorie restricted diet will only make things worse.

    A few people will try to deal with stress and weight gain by over-exercising.  Although exercise is essential for health, there are some people that go to extremes, believing that “more is better”.  Excessive exercise will overstress the body enough to raise cortisol levels to the point that health is compromised.  Chronically elevated cortisol  leads to tissue breakdown and for some people, it will predispose the body to yet more weight gain.

    Restrictive dieting combined with sleep deprivation is especially harmful to the health. All these factors combine to increase the likelihood of gaining weight or developing diabetes. Some of the consequences of chronic stress and elevated stress hormones include:

    • increased fat storage
    • abdominal obesity
    • lowered immune response
    • increased pain from inflammatory conditions
    • tissue breakdown
    • cardiovascular disease

    I would love to hear from you about your experiences in dealing with stress and weight gain.  How do you cope with cravings for “comfort food” when you are stressed?  Have you found a way to substitute junk food with healthy food? Please send us your ideas in the Comments area below.

     

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