Are Stress Hormones Sabotaging Your Diet?

Featured Article, News and Advice, Weight Loss
on May 10, 2013
Woman stressed out.

This is no news to you: Stress is just plain bad for your body, increasing your blood pressure, disrupting your sleep, upping your risk for diabetes and heart disease. And now there’s evidence that stress hormones can also take a toll on your waistline, causing you to gain weight and making it super tough to slim down. It’s enough to make you, well, stress out.

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But before you do, keep in mind: Stress isn’t all bad. If you’re confronting a mugger or a charging bear, for example, your adrenal glands pump out cortisol, one of the stress hormones, raising your blood sugar so you have energy for the fight or flight response. If you’re in an accident, cortisol acts as anti-inflammatory, “suppressing immune cells so your body can begin the healing process if you’re injured,” says Dr. Susan Blum, author of the new book The Immune System Recovery Plan.

Acute stress, which has a starting and end point, isn’t the problem. The culprit is chronic stress, which keeps the cortisol switch in the on-position. “We remember things that happened and dwell on them and worry about the future,” says Blum, founder and director of the Blum Center for Health in Rye, New York. “We get stuck in a chronic stress pattern.”

Because our adrenal glands have no idea if we’re just hashing and rehashing the crisis at work or, in fact, staring that bear down, they keep doing what they’re programmed to do, producing cortisol. That keeps blood sugar levels high and tells the body to store fat, especially in the abdomen, so we have energy reserves.

If that cycle continues, insulin levels rise, making matters worse. “It’s very hard to lose weight if that happens,” says Blum.

Stress will also make you chow down. “Some studies have shown that people exposed to ongoing stress choose calorie-dense foods that are high in fat and sugar,” says Blum.

What to do? Since stress isn’t going to go away, the trick is to figure out how to handle it and keep your stress hormones in check, says Blum. Here are six strategies that’ll help you stress less and control your weight.

Tune in to chill out. Activities that foster intense focus—meditation, yoga, guided imagery and even knitting—are just a few of the things you can do to chill out. “Do something every day that is relaxing and gets you of your thinking mind and gives you a break,” says Blum. “It’s the ruminating about things and worrying about the future that keeps you in the on-switch.”

Breathe deeply. Deep-breathing techniques calm you by lowering blood pressure and slowing heart rate, triggering the so-called relaxation response. “You can train your body to have this reflex so you relax very easily,” says Blum. “Late in the day when I am back to back with patients, I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths and my body quiets down very quickly.” To do:  Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth. As you inhale, imagine your belly puffing out; as you exhale, imagine it flattening in, she advises.

Eat regularly and eat well. When you skip meals, blood sugar levels dip and your adrenal glands leap into action, churning out cortisol, explains Blum. “Not eating is a constant stress on the adrenal glands,” she says. She recommends eating a meal or snack containing protein every three to four hours. Protein helps keep blood sugar at even keel “so you’re not getting ups and downs,” she says.

Get your shut-eye. Anyone who has tossed and turned knows how tough it is to handle even little upsets or setbacks when you’re bleary-eyed. “Getting a good night’s sleep—a minimum of seven hours—is the best way to keep your stress system in balance,” says Blum. It also curbs weight gain. University of Colorado researchers found that people who slept up to five hours a night burned five more percent more calories than people who snoozed for up to nine hours. But sleep-deprived people also consumed six percent more calories, ate smaller breakfasts and binged on after-dinner snacks. By the end of the first week, the five-hour-per-night sleepers had gained an average of two pounds each.

Clean up your act. Plenty of people turn to caffeine, nicotine or alcohol to cope when stress levels climb. But all of these stress your nervous system even more. Caffeine will rev you up and alcohol is high in sugar and disrupts sleep. Depending upon your mood and the amount you inhale, nicotine can stimulate your central nervous system, raising heart rate and blood pressure and making you jittery.

Exercise regularly. It burns calories, for one. It also takes you out of yourself and boosts levels of the feel-good hormones known as endorphins. “People exercise regularly feel less stress,” says Blum. Aim for 30 minutes to an hour of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week.