Does This Stress Make Me Look Fat?

Back-to-back meetings, the phone is ringing off the hook, emails and texts are piling up, and deadlines are looming. Is there enough coffee in the world to get through the week?

If you feel like you can relate to this scenario, you’re not alone. Those who are all too familiar with non-stop hectic workdays may be dealing with chronic stress.  In fact, any other form of long-term internal turmoil, social anxiety, relationship issues, financial burdens or loss can be categorized as chronic stress. 

Unlike acute stress, which only lasts for a short duration, chronic stress can cause harm to the body, especially the waist line.

When a person is placed into a stressful situation, the body adapts by releasing its stress hormone, cortisol. In the short term, cortisol is used for fight or flight, which increases memory and focus and reduces sensation and appetite. This is a critical hormone that is essential to escape dangerous situations. However, our stress-hormone has not adapted to account for today’s increased demands and non-stop sensory stimulations. More often than not, we are exposed to a multitude of mental stress factors.  The prolonged stress we experience on a daily basis doesn’t require us to respond through physical activity. When cortisol levels spike, it signals the release of triglycerides from storage to produce more energy and stores that unused stress energy around the abdominal organs as visceral fat (aka. belly fat). 

In addition to fat accumulation, the release of cortisol on a long-term basis negatively impacts heart functions, insulin levels, and causes inflammation, which are precursors for diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.  Some other harmful effects chronic stress induces on the body include poor digestion, weakening of the immune system, which allows more room for infection; and blocking thyroid hormone production, which can reduce the body’s metabolism resulting in weight gain. 

No matter how difficult it may be for us to relax in a society that tends to stretch us to our limits, it is imperative to make the extra effort to maintain a healthy mind, body, and spirit. Here are ten techniques to cut down your cortisol levels if you feel you are suffering from chronic stress that is resulting in weight gain:

    1. Get to Sleep: When you don’t get sufficient sleep, less than 7 hours a night per the National Sleep Foundation recommendations, your body inefficiently releases leptin and ghrelin, hormones that regulate appetite, which can result in overeating and weight gain due to poor metabolism. 
    2. Cut Back Screen Time:  The blue light from electronics can imitate sunlight, blocking your body from releasing melatonin, and keeping you from feeling sleepy before bed. 
    3. Practice Mindfulness: Set some quiet time aside for yourself. Practicing mindfulness helps you learn to listen to the body’s internal cues such as hunger or satiety. 
    4. Exercise: According to the physical Activity Guidelines for Americans it is recommended to move for 150 minutes each week or 30 minutes for 5 days a week. Exercise releases endorphins which in turn can help manage stress. 
    5. Reduce Caffeine: Did you know it can take up to 10 hours to completely clear caffeine from your bloodstream? That means if you have a 16oz latte at 3pm you will still have 75mg of caffeine (almost a full cup of coffee) in your system at 8pm. 
    6. Get Fresh Air: Try and take a break during your day to get outside. Doing so will decrease work burnout, increase creativity and potentially give you a boost of vitamin D.
    7. Laugh!: It’s true, laughter is the best medicine. Laughter can stimulate circulation and aid in muscle relaxation resulting in reduced stress levels. 
    8. Hang Out with a Pet: The simple act of petting an animal can release the hormone oxytocin, which in turn reduces cortisol levels. 
    9. Don’t Skip Meals: When you skip a meal, it signals to your body that there is an emergency. In turn, this raises your cortisol level and can actually result in slowing down your metabolism.
    10. Check out Ashwagandha: This adaptogen herb is notable for its ability to relieve daily stress through balancing cortisol levels and in turn can help improve quality of sleep. Always talk to your doctor before starting new supplements. 

Through the implementation of even just one of these natural remedies, you may not only find an improved work-life balance but also improved quality of long-term health. And remember, it is always okay to ask for support. If you feel that you are struggling to manage your stress on your own, ask for help from a medical professional such as a therapist or registered dietitian.

By Veronica Campbell, RDN, CBS
Veronica Campbell is a Registered Dietitian in the states of North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee.