Stress and Weight Loss

downloadDo you feel like you are doing everything right, eating well, exercising and you still aren’t losing weight? There may be several reasons why the scale is not going down, but one of the most common is related to the effect that stress has on our bodies and on our weight.

Most of us live under chronic low-grade stress all the time. Between work, family obligations, traffic, and our fast-paced lifestyles, it is difficult to not feel stressed out. Even worrying too much about our weight can increase our stress levels! Stress increases a hormone called cortisol, which is likely responsible for the reasons why the scale may not be moving if we are under a lot of stress.

There are over 100 hormones in the human body that function together in complex ways to influence hunger, satiety, fat storage, and muscle gain. Although research hasn’t identified all the details of the body’s hormones, several have a significant impact on body weight.  The primary stress hormone, which also influences our weight, is called cortisol. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys. Cortisol has some positive roles in our bodies, in the morning it helps motivate us to get going. It also plays a role in controlling metabolism and insulin levels.

Although cortisol plays some positive roles, levels of cortisol are increased during times of psychological or physical stress. Since it controls metabolism and insulin, during times of stress, too much cortisol can increase your appetite and cause you to deposit fat in the abdominal area.

A 2001 study of 59 healthy women found that stressed women with high cortisol levels, tended to eat more calories and sugar than those who were not under stress. Eating more calories and sugar will lead to weight gain over the long-term.

When cortisol is high, your body believes it needs to remain alert for any potential threats. Therefore, instead of shedding weight, it will slow down your metabolism and conserve energy in case it does have to react to a potential threat. This mechanism was highly adaptive when there were realistic threats such as predators to deal with regularly, but actually works against us now that we live in a different environment.

The best way to control your cortisol levels is to learn to manage your stress. Daily low-intensity exercise, like walking, reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels. Aim for at least 30-60 minutes of light walking daily to help manage stress and reduce cortisol.

High intensity exercise can actually increase cortisol, so try not to overdo it, especially if you are just starting out. You may also want to consider taking some adaptogen herbs, such as rhodiola, astragalus, and ginseng, to help lower cortisol levels.  Other ways to manage your stress include taking time out for enjoyable activities, meditation/prayer, laughing with friends, or taking a long bubble bath. Make stress management part of your daily routine to help decrease cortisol and help you reach your goals.

Part 3: Lifestyle and Immunity

exerciseIn the last two parts of this series, we addressed how nutrition and specific supplements can help boost your immune system and keep you healthy throughout cold and flu season. In the third and final part of this series, we wanted to look at lifestyle and immunity. A healthy diet will only go so far if you don’t have these other lifestyle factors in place also.

Manage Stress

Being under too much stress is probably the first thing that lowers our ability to fight off disease. Many of us are under chronic-low grade stress the majority of the time. We have a lot of demands between work, family, and other day to day challenges. Although it is difficult to study the complex relationship between stress and immunity in humans, animal studies can give us many clues to how our immune system reacts to stressful situations. When mice infected with the flu virus were placed in a stressful situation, the rate of the production of antibodies and other immune cells was reduced.

In human studies, although more research is needed, it has been found that short-term stress (like taking an exam) doesn’t have as significant an effect on the immune system as chronic daily stress does.  Stress increases the presence of the hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, both of which suppress the immune system.

If you are under chronic stress, try to come up with a plan to help manage stress better. Laugh with some friends, take time off work, or unwind with a hot bath. Stress management should be a part of your daily life, especially to help keep your immune system healthy and strong.

Exercise

The connection between exercise and immune function is complex. After very strenuous exertion, like running a marathon, immune function actually decreases for a short period of time (72 hours).  But, it has also been found that daily brisk walking (30-60 minutes) actually decreases the number of sick days overall.  It is believed that exercise helps remove bacteria from the lungs, reducing infections. Exercise also decreases stress, therefore it helps maintain a healthy immune system overall. The relationship between exercise and immunity is complex and more research is needed to determine exactly how exercise helps the immune system.

Sleep

 Adequate sleep is critical for optimal immune function. During sleep is the time when our immune system regenerates, creating new antibodies and immune cells to fight off illnesses during the day. It also helps decrease inflammation, reducing our risk of chronic diseases. Most adults need between 8-10 hours of restful sleep in a dark, cool room, but many of us have a hard time getting that much with so many other demands on our time. If you have difficulty sleeping, make sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Start to unwind and relax about an hour before bed to tell your body it is time sleep. Turn off all cell phones, the television, and any other bright lights for restful sleep. You can also try some sleep boosting foods, like cherries, almonds, and decaf herbal tea.

Other Habits

There are several other lifestyle habits that are important to staying healthy. The first is to try to not put toxic substances into your body by drinking alcohol excessively or smoking. Both alcohol and smoking cause inflammation which weakens the immune system.

Be sure to wash your hands frequently during cold and flu season to prevent infection. Using an alcohol-based gel is just as effective if your hands are not visibly soiled.

If you maintain these lifestyle habits, along with the healthy diet and supplements discussed in parts 1 and 2, you will stay healthy all winter long!