Stress. We all know it, and are probably even more familiar with it than we should be. Stress, in the right amount is not a bad thing. Physical and mental stress is what allows us to grow and become stronger. Stress that is overwhelming and prolonged is the kind that takes a toll on our health and sometimes our waistline.
There’s a misconception in the health and fitness world that chronic high cortisol (stress hormone) can make you pack on the pounds no matter how little you’re eating. This isn’t necessarily true, but it’s useful to understand how stress relates to your health and weight.
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your digestion. When under stress, your body diverts blood and nutrients away from your digestive system and into your heart, lungs, and muscles so that you can “fight or flight” if necessary.
Stress makes it harder to make good, conscious decisions. Again, it’s the “fight or flight” state that causes us to respond to decisions with knee-jerk reactions, and these typically aren’t our best behaviors. Example: instead of planning and cooking a healthy dinner after a long day of work, you revert back to the McDonald’s drive through because it’s comfortable and doesn’t take any extra thinking.
Going through periods (months or even years) of unrelenting stress can dysregulate hormones causing mood swings, sleep disturbances, skin problems, and chronic fatigue. All of these symptoms can make it difficult to exercise and make good food decisions.
Many people respond to stress by overeating, which contributes to weight gain and can further exacerbate feelings of overwhelm.
When cortisol is perpetually elevated, extra calories are more likely to be stored as fat (usually in the midsection), rather than being burned as fuel. However, this is only in the case of a caloric excess.
So you can probably see how all of the above factors can make it really difficult to stick to your weight loss/maintenance goals when you’re going through a lot of stress. Ultimately though, and contrary to popular belief, stress itself isn’t what causes weight gain. It’s how you respond to it.
To illustrate this point, I’m going to introduce you to a couple of my (imaginary) friends.
Susan is a nurse who just started working overnight shifts at the hospital. She’s also currently going through a divorce and dealing with two difficult teenage daughters. In other words, Susan is no stranger to stress. When stressed-out Susan is overwhelmed, she turns to food for comfort and eats often even if she’s not hungry. On top of her emotional eating, she feels too overwhelmed and tired to workout. After two months of overeating and missing workouts, Stressed-out Susan has gained ten pounds.
Now meet Stressed-out Steve. Steve is an undergrad student in the last couple months of his final semester. Steve is drowning in homework assignments, papers, and study prep. Not only that, but he’s unsure of what he’s going to do after graduating and he’s worried about how he’ll make ends meet until he finds work. When Stressed-out Steve is overwhelmed, he completely loses his appetite. He knows he needs to eat but nothing sounds good and anything more than a piece of toast leaves him feeling nauseous. Steve is also consuming more caffeine than normal to keep him going, and as a result his appetite is reduced even more. After two months of this, Stressed-out Steve has dropped ten pounds.
Stressed-out Sally has been working hard to change her eating habits. Her weight has been steadily trending down until recently. She had to uproot her whole life and move to a different state where she doesn’t know anyone and is starting a new job. Even though she feels overwhelmed, Sally recognizes that the demands of her current situation will make it difficult to continue making healthy changes so she commits to maintaining her weight. She does the best she can with her habits but she doesn’t criticize herself about having to eat fast food occasionally. She is in constant contact with her health coach and her therapist to help keep her on track as much as possible. After two months, Stressed-out Sally has maintained her weight.
All of my (imaginary) friends here are under stress. All of them have elevated cortisol levels over the course of several months. One of them lost weight, one gained weight, and one maintained. All of these outcomes were not as a direct result of the stress, but how they responded to it.
The takeaway for YOU is to understand the science of stress and human physiology but also how your individual behaviors around food, exercise, and sleep change when under stress.