A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at data on 1,355 men and women who had their weight and stress levels measured in 1995 and again in 2004.
The findings showed that those who were overweight and obese packed on the pounds even more as time went by and stressors continued and increased.
Those who were thin, stayed thin, and according to the lead author Jason Block on faculty at Harvard, “The stress effect didn’t appear to impact normal-weight people, just those who were overweight and obese from the beginning of the study.”
The results of this study may be true, but as Americans are getting fatter and sicker, we are faced with more problems than ever before.
We are suffering ever-growing rates of obesity and worsening health caused by weight problems. Stress is a leading cause of this modern-day epidemic — brought about by our frenetic lifestyles or financial worries from the economic recession.
Stress comes in two varieties:
Acute stress is when you are running to catch a plane, your work is past deadline, the kids are calling for help, and you feel like the world is crashing down on your little shoulders.
Chronic stress is what we live with every day without any hope of it loosening its grip on us.
Doctors and scientists analyze the metabolic and hormonal basis for our stress reactions. Nutritionists, exercise experts, and other clinicians help us deal with its undesirable effects.
One thing that doesn’t work is being told that the problem is in our head and that if we watch our diet we will lose weight. Another thing that doesn’t work is doctors discarding the problem and recommending a blood test at some point in our downward spiral.
The best way to deal with problems from my perspective of 30-plus years of practicing medicine and experiencing stress first hand is to understand the causes of the problem. So here is a primer on how stress affects our body and soul:
1. Metabolism — Stress stimulates the production of the hormone cortisol, which slows down metabolic function. Normal, healthy metabolism helps us digest and process foods, and detoxify our system of them, while absorbing the nutrients we need.
2. Blood-sugar levels and insulin — Stress causes insulin levels to fluctuate wildly and blood-sugar levels follow. When insulin levels are high and sugar levels are low, we crave foods — fatty, salty, and sugary ones in particular.
3. Cravings — Our desire to eat junk is directly connected to hormone levels and chronic stress worsens the problem. When stress is the core issue, people do not run for vegetables and fruit; they hit the chips, fast food, and junk.
4. Fat storage especially around the belly and hips — When you are stressed, you eat junk which accumulates in fatty deposits around the waist and abdomen. As women age the middle section of the body becomes heavier — an aesthetically displeasing sight with dangerous health consequences: higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.
5. Emotional Eating — Stress and increased levels of cortisol plunge us into a cycle of eating badly, drinking too much caffeine and alcohol, not exercising, and being unable to sleep.
But there is always a way to take control of our lives. If you let stress make you fat and sick when things improve, and they always do, you won’t be able to enjoy the upside of life. Here are some ways to beat stress and feel better:
1. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out to friends, family, and others who are truly doing well and who have positive recommendations and set a healthy example.
2. Stay away from critical and negative people. Pay attention and you will figure out who is good for your health and who isn’t. Sarcasm is always a negative.
3. Exercise. Unless you find that you feel worse after exercising, which is usually a sign of illness, start a serious, daily, little-at-first, build-as-you-go program. You will feel better and crave more exercise not junk food.
4. Relax. When I hear someone saying, relax, I immediately tighten up. The best way to relax is to focus on beautiful times and places. Imagine a place and time when things worked well for you. Stay with that thought for a while and see how quickly you really relax.
5. Get enough sleep. Sleep is the key ingredient to feeling better and losing weight. During sleep, hormones are made that help your entire system renew and strengthen. Get eight hours of sleep a night and watch the weight drop.
6. Balance your hormones. If you are over 40, male or female, your hormones need help. Menopause and low thyroid are major contributing factors to our inability to deal with stress. Find an experienced doctor who knows about hormones and listens to you. Take bioidentical hormones if you need them, get your thyroid treated, take the right supplements to support your immune system and hormones, and watch how quickly you shed stress and lose weight.
7. Do not focus on diet alone. When trying to lose weight, incorporate all of the above into a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management program.