Social stress and weight gain

by Charles Platkin, PhD

According to researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, “Science has documented the effect of tremendous stress on a person, such as war, injury or traumatic grief, creating a decrease in food consumption and as a result, body weight. Recent studies, however, tend to suggest that social stress — public speaking, tests, job and relationship pressures — may have the opposite effect: overeating and weight gain.”

Why do you gain weight? There are two main reasons:

Biological Interference:

Biologically, your body is designed for the “fight or flight” response to stress. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone designed to help you either fight or flee. But when the cause is not a bear about to attack but rather a stressful email from your boss or an argument with your spouse, this response is not exactly helpful.

Cortisol helps to increase energy by tapping into the body’s stored protein, converting it into glucose and bringing it to the muscles and the brain — so you can fight or flee, instead of being defeated. But it can also move fat from other storage areas in the body to fat cells in the abdomen where, research has shown, it can be retrieved most quickly for energy. Stress–induced obesity is specifically abdominal obesity (the worst kind), which interferes with insulin function and elevates blood sugar, leading to diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease.

“Cortisol influences utilization of the energy nutrients, one of which is fat. Cortisol and glucocorticoids in general play an important role in determining adipose (fat) tissue metabolism and distribution of body fat. In obese patients, although circulating concentrations of cortisol are not consistently elevated, the conversion of the inactive cortisol precursor (called cortisone) to active cortisol in adipose tissue may be abnormal. Some researchers believe that overexpression of the enzyme required to turn cortisone into cortisol promotes visceral fat deposition. The consequence is so–called visceral abdominal obesity or central adiposity,” says Dr. Peter S. Murano, a professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University.

On top of all that, cortisol may linger in your body long after the cause of the initial stress has passed, tricking it into thinking it has done something active in response to a perceived threat. What’s even more surprising is that cortisol acts like a biological green light that sends signals to your brain to refuel your body as soon as possible. “Cortisol is a potent appetite signal. It helps to alert the brain to increase appetite for sugar after a stressful experience. This response makes perfect sense if you have expended calories via an intense stress–induced fight/flight response (i.e., a lion chasing you). The cortisol tells your brain and body to ‘refuel’ after that physical exertion. BUT, most of our stressors in modern society have nothing to do with running away from or fighting hungry lions. But that traffic jam or work deadline still sets off the cortisol–induced appetite signals, so we eat junk food and store the calories in the abdominal region (leading to diabetes),” says Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Cortisol Connection.

Eating Comfort Foods:

When things are stressful what can we do? How can we feel better? How about eating brownies, doughnuts, candy, ice cream, pizza, mashed potatoes and fried chicken? These foods are always quick to the rescue in our time of need. Typical thinking when stressed is, “You only live once, so I might as well enjoy myself now.” When tension and anxiety are high in one aspect of life, it’s not unusual for other areas (such as weight control or eating healthy) to seem trivial or less important.

Why do you crave these foods? One reason is that it’s what you’re used to having in times of discomfort. Parents gave you an ice cream when you had a bad day at school or when you lost the big game. And when you left the doctor’s office you got a lollipop.

The other reason — carbs help you feel better biologically. Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., co–author of The Serotonin Power Diet, (Rodale, 2008) was the first to connect food with mood when she found that carbohydrate foods boosted a potent brain chemical called serotonin that controls mood, sleep and appetite, and, when elevated, helps you to feel more relaxed and calm.

The way this works is that the glucose in high–carbohydrate food triggers the release of insulin. This, in turn, allows the amino acid tryptophan to reach the brain (by blocking other competing amino acids), stimulating the production of serotonin.

Some of the indirect effects of excess belly fat and cortisol overexposure are depression, fatigue, tension and anxiety. But they are all resolved by getting cortisol/stress under control, says Talbott. Here are a few tips that will help you relax and stay healthy during stressful times:

  • Create a “Stress Snack Eating” Kit: Create an actual kit filled with portion–controlled low–calorie snacks to keep in your office or at home so that you can break it out when needed. Also, put in a few non–food items, such as an iPod loaded with comedy sketches and a jump–rope. (It wouldn’t hurt to jump a few — see more simple exercises that can help reduce stress and get you in shape.
  • Keep Unhealthy Snacks Out Of Sight:Especially when you know you’re going to have a stressful day. Researchers have shown time and time again that snacks you can see are snacks that you eat.
  • Come up with healthy comfort foods: Know what foods help you relieve stress and comfort you during tough times. My favorite is popcorn made at home in a pan or air–popped with a bit of butter spray, salt and garlic.
  • Develop a Stress–Eating Alternate Action Plan: As an alternative to eating, try to find enjoyable, non–food–related activities that can distract you: exercising, shopping, going to the movies, using relaxation techniques, working, chatting with friends, reading a humorous book. Have your plan in place before the stressful situation takes control. Not only will you feel better about yourself, you’ll also be working toward relieving some of that pent–up stress. And since you’ll thoroughly enjoy what you’re involved in, it won’t feel like a chore!
  • Exercise the Stress Away :Yes, go out for a walk, take a spin class, go for a run. As much as relaxation techniques (like yoga and meditation) can be alternatives to stress eating, it’s also a good idea to do some aerobic activity, even for five minutes. Get up and walk around, go to the gym or ride a bike. Physical activity increases endorphins (the brain chemicals that control mood). These are the best stress neutralizers around — better than any sugary or fattening foods you can find in your fridge or cupboard. And your waistline will not suffer when they kick into gear.
  • Write Down Your Emotional Eating Triggers :Write down your most common stress–causing situations. From this record, you can identify some of the triggers that may lead to overeating and then work to manage your behavior. As you get more in touch with your feelings, you will develop healthier ways to handle stress.
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