Stress. Stress. Stress. Stress. Stress. Stress. Stress.
We hear this word EVERYWHERE. But can it really be halting your weight loss progress and causing damaging inflammation in your body? The resounding answer is "YES." This is supported by both clinical observations as well as published scientific research.
This means that you can be eating clean, moving your body regularly, getting good sleep but still not see the results you want to see. Learn how stress is impacting your body and what exactly you can do about it.
First, remember, there is a difference between chronic stress and acute stress. Acute stress is the type of stress our body can easily handle:
~Jumping out of the way of a falling branch while walking
~Swerving to avoid the squirrel on our drive to work
~Racing over to help an elderly person who looks like her balance might cause a fall
~Feeling a bit jittery and unsettled after hearing a loud, unexpected noise
These types of stressors are short, cause a fast hormone surge that goes away quickly and everything returns back to normal. The body is very well equipped to deal with this type of stressor because it has been doing so ever since caveman times.
During these short, intense, acute bouts of stress, we feel our heart rate soar, adrenaline pumping through our veins and a flood of cortisol coursing through the body getting us ready to fight or flee. The "fight or flight" reaction is our body' way of dealing with an unknown and potentially dangerous situation.
As with the examples listed above, we can quickly assess and overcome all of those acute stressors very quickly. That means our body can return our fight or flee hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) back to normal levels as we carry on with our day.
However, what happens when stress doesn't go away? What about chronic stressors? Think about the stressors below that you may experience on a daily basis:
~Unexpected financial woes
~Type A, driven personality
~Fluorescent office lighting
~A constant, never-ending "to-do" list
~Exposure to chemicals, scents, toxins
~Care-giving (young children, sick loved ones, elderly parents)
~On-going inflammatory condition (arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune condition, etc)
When we read this list, we recognize some of these as chronic stressors but others may not be things that we think of when we assess the stress in our lives. Exposure to chemicals (new car smell, exhaust, cleaning products, perfumes), light exposure (artificial lighting), driven personality (always on the go, striving for perfection). Even though some of these things don't mentally stress us out, they are considered physiological stressors, meaning -- they subconsciously produce a stress response in your body even if you don't perceive it.
The unfortunate thing about chronic stressors is that our body produces the same stress hormones as it does when we have acute stress (cortisol and adrenaline), however, because the stressor doesn't go away, we have a continuous elevation of these hormones in our body.
Chronic Stress Leads to Fat Storage
Chronically elevated cortisol is especially harmful in the presence of a high insulin diet. And when we have continuous cortisol production, this can cause huge cravings for foods that also elevate insulin (cookies, chips, pizza, burritos, brownies, etc).
Here's the really bad part. One of cortisol's main jobs during fight or flight mode is to flood our bloodstream with glucose (sugar) so that our muscles and brain are ready to put up one heck of a fight or to run like heck away from something. This is great when we are being chased by a bear or fending off a sabre tooth tiger (acute stressors).
This is horrible for the body when our stressors are chronic. Continuous cortisol production means chronically elevated blood sugar. Along with elevated insulin (whose job is to store sugar), our body is in constant fat storage mode.
We don't even have to eat high insulin foods to have this fat storage effect since the rise in blood sugar from cortisol alone will cause insulin to be released to store any excess sugar we didn't use from fight or flight. But again, because we are never fighting a bear or fleeing a sabre tooth tiger, we always have excess blood sugar that needs to be stored.
Hence, stress alone can cause chronic fat storage -- especially around the mid-section.
What Can We Do About It?
I know what you are thinking: "Carrie, it will be impossible in my life to avoid all stressors to keep cortisol low." That may be partially true. However, you can give your body some very important tools in order for your hormonal stress response to be lower. Using the following tools on a daily basis will optimize cortisol production, keep blood sugar better regulated and allow your body to burn fat.
1. Learn how to breathe.
When we only breathe using the upper portion of our lungs, we tend to also use our
neck muscles to breathe. This leads to chronic neck tension (stressor) and reduced oxygen input (stressor). By learning to breathe three dimensionally with your diaphragm as the main control muscle, you will be taking in more oxygen while relaxing tense muscles. All of this sends the message to our brain that "we are not in a threatening situation so there is no need to release stress hormones." With enough practice, this way of breathing becomes second nature. But it almost always needs practice.
For those of you located in the Kalamazoo area, we are offering a breathing class on Thursday mornings at 7:15-7:45am at The Fitness Spot ($10 drop in or included in your monthly $29 monthly fitness class membership). This class will teach you how to breathe, decompress and start your day off in a relaxed state of energetic.
2. Walk in nature.
When we take time to walk leisurely in nature, we automatically lower our cortisol response. Being surrounded by beautiful nature is also very soothing to our senses compared to the constant buzz of traffic, phone calls, social media notifications, etc. By being exposed to sunlight in nature we also get some good vitamin D along with a reset of our circadian hormones. This is super helpful for those of us who wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep. Often times, our circadian
cortisol release is not in sync with sunlight and it wakes us up too early and with too big of a burst to fall easily back asleep.
If this sounds like you, it is imperative that you find multiple times throughout the week to walk leisurely in nature. Only 10-15 minutes at a time makes a big difference. Breathing deeply while you walk enhances the effect.
3. Create calm in your environment.
We do not even realize how much the noise, light, and smells of our environment are stressors. I have finally figured out that I need to turn off the radio while I drive, turn off the overhead lights whenever possible and use natural light and to avoid perfume-y fragrances in order to keep my body more relaxed. Because my body subconsciously perceives these things as stressors/toxins, ridding my environment of them allows my cortisol levels to be naturally optimized instead of in constant fight or flight mode.
At work, try to use natural lighting as much as possible. Or soft lamps instead of
overhead lighting. Feel free to bring in a white noise machine or listen to soft soothing music instead of the usual office hub bub. If you enjoy fragrance, make sure it is from 100% natural essential oils such as peppermint, eucalyptus or lavender instead of synthetic chemical fragrance.
All of these things go a long way in optimizing our cortisol response and taking the body away from a constant state of fight or flight. If you feel like you are under chronic stress and it is negatively impacting your fat loss results, spend two weeks prioritizing stress reduction over all other things except clean eating and see if your body can finally relax enough to burn body fat again.