You’re under pressure. You’re anxious and ‘on the go’ all the time. You aren’t overeating and you are exercising a fair amount, yet you seem to be gaining weight, rather than losing. What the heck is going on?

The hustle and bustle of daily life naturally creates a certain amount of pressure that actually helps us function. A demanding work environment, family issues, illness, financial worries and relationship problems are part of life, but it’s the impact that they have that matters.

Constant, chronic low- or high-grade type of stress that can wreak havoc on your emotional as well as physical health. Aside from causing anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation, stress can lead to hypertension, weight problems and an increased vulnerability to colds, infections and more serious illnesses.

5 Reasons How Stress Prevents Weight Loss

1. Stress causes many people to stress eat: stress eating is a type of emotional eating, which contributes to excess calories and, when done often enough, causes weight gain. In addition, the types of food people crave when stressed are usually high fat and high sugar. “We crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods [when stressed] because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension,” explains Elissa Epel, a researcher from the University of California. This soothing effect becomes highly addictive because it feels like it alleviates the stress (it does – but only in the very short term. Ultimately, it actually makes us feel worse as we gain weight and become more unhealthy).

2. Stress causes the body to produce more of the hormone cortisol: cortisol is a stress hormone that promotes body fat and makes it harder to lose weight, especially around the middle. This is called visceral fat and is particularly dangerous because it surrounds vital organs and releases fatty acids into your blood, raising cholesterol and insulin levels and paving the way for heart disease and diabetes (listen to our podcast on the perils of visceral fat here).

3. When someone is stressed they generally sleep less: less sleep and chronic fatigue causes the hormone ‘ghrelin’ to rise. Ghrelin is the primary hunger hormone, and causes someone to feel hungry even when they don’t need to eat. It is also released when we drink too much alcohol – which, again, is a common ‘numbing technique’ used when people are stressed. Just like food, it provides a temporary release, but in the long term it doesn’t help. In fact, many people don’t know that alcohol is known to actually suppress the feelgood chemicals in the longer term.

4. Stress causes routines to go out the window: so, someone who is usually on top of controlling their blood sugar (by eating a source of protein every 3-4 hours), will suddenly find that they are eating at erratic times, or that they are going for hours without eating at all. This plays havoc on our metabolism, as well as our poor bodies; unsure when the next calories are coming from, the body will even start to hold onto fat as a source of energy that it may need. Then, when we dump a load of sugar in on top of that, it’s a recipe for significant weight gain.

5. Stress affects the pre-frontal cortex (PFC): an important aspect of weight loss is how your brain actually works. Stress diminished the PFC, which is the very part of the brain that we need to be functioning well in order to stick to a weight loss programme. The PFC is responsible for planning (ie. prepping healthy meals in advance), making good choices and exerting willpower (ie. saying ‘no’ to a high sugar food) and our emotional reactions (ie. which, if intense, can lead to emotional eating). Poor PFC function has been shown to lead to more impulsive behaviour (ie. eating unhealthy foods and then wondering why we did straight afterwards). Learn how to ‘Prime your brain for weight loss’ here.

3 Simple Ways to Help Beat Stress

1. Move every day: exercise – even just a brisk 20-minute walk – makes your blood circulate more quickly, transporting the cortisol to your kidneys and flushing it out of your system.

2. Slow down: we know that slowing down the speed of our eating leads to us consuming less, but even more than that; experts now believe that cortisol levels drop when we slow down at meal times. Read more about the benefits of slowing down overall here.

3. Dial down the caffeine: did you know that coffee is actually ‘anxiogenic’ (in other words, too much of it can contribute to anxiety). Next time you’re particularly stressed, try a herbal tea or choose decaf instead. Incredibly, caffeine can actually raise cortisol levels more than stress alone. One study, undertaken by the University of Oklahoma, showed that consuming 2-3 cups of coffee while mildly stressed boosted cortisol by as much as 25% (and kept it elevated for 3 hours afterwards).

Losing Weight?

We’ve talked about how stress can make you gain weight (or impede/slow down weight loss). But how about those people who lose weight when they’re stressed – is it a good thing? We would argue that, no, it’s poor quality weight loss. For those people that lose their appetite, weight loss is unhealthy and can cause dehydration, weakness, and suppresses the immune system (which we know can lead to serious illness, including cancer).

Also, in many cases, the person can lose muscle mass as well as fat which, ultimately, will lead to a slowing of their metabolism over time (so that their weight is likely to jump up in the near future).

Important: if you lose weight for no apparent reason, and without trying, it’s imperative that you see your GP immediately.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle