We all face daily stress, and but high levels of stress have a significant effect on your health, especially weight gain. You may have noticed what happens with your energy, cravings, mood, food, and sleep when you are stressed. How does your eating habits change when stressed? Stress can be all-consuming, sneaky, persistent, habitual, and even your “normal.”
While it is impossible, as humans, to live a completely stress-free life, there are some tips and tricks you can incorporate into your days, so that you are not the example of the oh-so-common stress weight gain (as well as other metabolic imbalances, health issues, and hardship).
The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is designed to be released during times of short-term stress where it then provides energy to cope, but with chronic stress, there is chronically high cortisol levels, which can aggravate the body. High levels of cortisol create inflammation and the body tends to hold on to the weight, and cortisol stimulates appetite during recovery from stress, craving energy-dense foods such as sugar and fat.
Oxytocin is the anti-stress hormone, promotes connection, bonding, and closeness to keep you calm. You can create more oxytocin in your life, laugher, nature, orgasm, dark chocolate, creativity, dance, music, cuddling, puppies, socializing, friendship, sharing your feelings, and gratitude are all simple and user-friendly ways to boost your oxytocin. Higher levels of oxytocin can balance out your stress hormones and leave you feeling better, craving less, and enjoying life more.
Stress and Eating
When you feel stress, do you reach for the cupcakes, or prefer something salty and crunchy, like chips.
There is a whole spectrum of craving depending on what is stressing you out and how extreme the situation, your relationship with food and cravings can change.
Emotional eating: Chronic stress is often associated with anxiety, depression, and even anger. While food is generally not the answer to combatting stress, often, if stress persists, an easy and effective way to find short-term comfort is found with emotional eating and/or excessive snacking.
Ways to Handle Stress
Breathe: Slow, deep breaths relieve high-stress levels and calms your nervous system. Breathing during snack or mealtime allows you to feel calmer, to listen to your body, feel your hunger and satiation cues more clearly, and stay the observer as you eat.
Sense: Your senses occur only in the present. Therefore, tracking your senses while you eat can help you stay present in each moment during mealtime. Attuning to your senses also elevates the pleasure you experience. Pleasure activates your oxytocin and helps to balance your cravings and your appetite.
Stress and Sleep
Lack of sleep alters your hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin). Leptin is the hormone that suppresses your appetite. Leptin decreases with sleep deprivation leaving you more likely to be craving comfort food the next day. Ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Ghrelin increases with lack of sleep. You can see here how it is easy to consume more food after a tough night of sleep.
Lack of sleep (and the cascade of hunger hormone shifts) could contribute to increased appetite and possibly explain increased weight gain for some individuals with higher stress and lower duration of sleep.
Tips to Ease Stress Before Bedtime
• Meditate before bed: Meditation has been shown to relax the nervous system and reduce symptoms of stress.
• Drink warm chamomile tea to ease your nervous system: it has a calming effect and may also help with a more restful night of sleep.
• Take a warm bath: By warming up the body temperature in a bath, your body relaxes more easily, leading to a more relaxed bedtime.
• Use herbal supplements and natural remedies such as melatonin, Withania, L-tryptophan, or valerian.
• Diffuse essential oil of lavender in your room: Aromatherapy can set the tone for more relaxation and rest.
• Avoid electronics and screen time 30 minutes before bed: More time off of your screen has been shown to lend to a better night of sleep.
Breaking the Negative Stress Cycle
If you are suffering from stress-related weight gain, the best thing you can do is try to handle those stressful times with as much knowledge, awareness, gentleness, and patience as you can. There are some effective stress management strategies to explore here today, to avoid potential weight gain, but also to break the vicious cycle of stress and uplift your quality of life.
• Find a healthy outlet for your stress: Regular exercise, time in nature, community, and spirituality can help you through hard times.
• Mindful eating: When you are stressed, pay attention to what you eat; eat it slowly and mindfully.
• Amplify the good in your life: Increase your pleasure and oxytocin with regular physical activity that uplifts your spirits.
• Get support: Talk to a friend, a family member, or a professional.
• Journal: Sort out some of your feelings through personal reflection and journaling. Dealing with your stressors head-on by journaling can help you unload them off your shoulders.
Weight gain is not a conclusion that has to come with every stressful situation. You don’t have control of what stress life throws at you, but you do have the power within your stress response that can be adjusted over time to create a healthier body and life.
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