Chronic stress is the Kryptonite to your fat-burning superpowers
Hopefully, you live in a state of constant bliss. One where every traffic light is green, your job is great, and you sleep like a baby. Sadly, in today’s, stress-at-every-turn-world, this is doubtful. It’s more likely that for you, life is a never-ending traffic jam. At work, you often imagine what your manager would look like without a head. Occasionally, you feel like poisoning your work colleagues (nothing serious, just giving them the ‘runs’). And at home, you’ve the sleep patterns of an insomniac on a caffeine drip.
To add to this insufferable situation, you’re trying to lose weight as well.
If any of this sounds familiar, then you must act to remedy the situation. Otherwise, your chances of reducing your wobbly bits are about the same as England winning the World Cup (on penalties).
So, what’s the answer?
Well, first let’s see how the problem occurs, then we can look at the solutions.
Do battle or run like hell?
When faced with danger or any perceived threat, these hormones spring into action. Adrenaline increases heart rate, makes the muscles contract harder and faster and dilates blood vessels to allow blood to flow quicker. This is all very useful if you need to do battle or run like hell. However, it’s cortisol that causes the biggest problems.
Its key role is to ensure there’s sufficient energy available for battling or running. It does this by releasing more fat into the bloodstream. Its other function is to focus your body’s resources on staying alive. So, it temporarily inhibits any unnecessary metabolic functions such as digestion, growth, reproduction and your immune system.
But what happens if the stress is purely mental? Possibly a broken heart, the commute to work, a big queue at the supermarket, noisy neighbours, etc.? Unfortunately, the answer is the same: increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline.
In a time, long, long ago….
These hormones evolved in our early history when stress was mainly physical, not mental. It’s a vital process that still serves us well when we undergo acute, or short phases of physical stress. Things, such as heavy lifting, running for the bus, etc. The key phrase here, however, is acute or short-term. Your body is not designed to sustain such high, continuous levels of these hormones. This is why, once the physical stress is over the body releases stress-busting, feel-good chemicals called endorphins. They calm you back down, bringing a sense of peace and well-being.
Don’t be a bear with a bad toothache
The problems develop when stress stops being acute and becomes chronic (consistent). And you feel as if you exist in a state of perpetual rage that you can’t seem to break. One mental stress-event blurs into another, then another, and another until you’re walking around like a bear with a bad toothache.
But surely, when you are stressed, isn’t your metabolism revved up? Therefore, aren’t you burning more energy (calories)?
Well, no, not really. In fact, you’re more than likely getting fatter, especially around the belly.
How does stress make you fat?
First, not all your fat cells are the same, and second, they aren’t merely receptacles to store surplus energy. You have primary, visceral (abdominal) fat cells and secondary, subcutaneous (under the skin) fat cells. Recent research  has discovered that visceral cells are highly active. They produce several pro-inflammatory hormones; one in particular is a type oestrogen that promotes the storage of belly fat. Subcutaneous fat cells however, are relatively dormant and the first port of call when energy is required.
But what has this to do with becoming fatter?
When we become physically or mentally stressed, cortisol stimulates the release of fat from the secondary sites (under the skin) into the bloodstream for more available energy. However, if you don’t burn it off, it’s reabsorbed by the primary fat cells in your stomach. So, stress makes you shift fat from where it’s easy to get at to where it’s determined to hang around like a bad smell in a lift. (Which is also why it’s your tummy that’s the last place to disappear when dieting.)
Long-term (chronic) stress also damages the immune system, reduces the metabolic rate and creates internal inflammation. But it’s not just your body that’s affected, you brain suffers as well. High cortisol levels disrupt the delicate balance of two powerful and important brain chemicals: dopamine and serotonin. This can lead to depression, cravings, comfort eating, and binge-eating. All in all, if you want to lose weight, you don’t want chronically-high levels of cortisol in your system.
So, how do you keep cortisol under check?
It’s important to find some form of relaxation. This could be anything: reading a book, taking a long bath, meditation, etc., but you need to find a way to turn your brain off for a while. There is a ton of information on the internet about stress release, but we can offer a few helpful ideas:
1. Improve your diet
Eating natural, unprocessed foods, especially fibrous veg, will improve digestion and gut health. In turn, this increases the production of a feel-good chemical called serotonin (90% of your serotonin is made in the gut, not the brain).
Eating breakfast can help by counteracting the natural surge in cortisol when you first wake . If you skip breakfast, cortisol will stay higher for longer. It’s open to debate if breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but as a stress buster, it may be useful. (We talk in-depth about the pros and cons of breakfast in Winning the Inch War.)
2. Get active
Take up some vigorous activity or exercise. As we’ve just mentioned, for thousands of years, mental stress as we know it hardly existed – it was all physical: running, fighting, hunting, etc. This is the reason why post-physical exercise hormones are so potent, they’ve been in place for years. If you’re not already doing so, get off your backside and do some physical exercise. You’ll get these hormones back into the system and your body will love you for it.
3. Sleep better
Finally, get a good night’s sleep. The above points all help towards better sleep, but they mainly deal with the symptoms of existing stress. A good night’s sleep ‘resets’ your stress hormones back to normal levels. It’s not difficult to see the downward spiral of daily stress leading to poor sleep. Which, in turn increases stress and then poor sleep and more stress and so on and so forth. The problem is often exacerbated by imbibing copious volumes of caffeine during the day to keep you going. Then, it’s a bottle of wine and a Valium sandwich to shut you down in the evening.
Numerous sleep studies  have shown that a chronic lack of sleep lowers your metabolic rate and increases your appetite, often in as little as four to five days.
Quality time in the land of nod!
Okay, because sleep is such a vital factor in stress management, let’s have a look and see if we can improve what happens when you’re in the land of nod!
There’s plenty of research into improving sleep, but here’s a quick overview:
- No caffeine within 6-8-hours of bedtime.
- Abstain from alcohol for a minimum of four evenings per week. Also, try to not drink anything alcoholic within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
- Keep the bedroom cool and well ventilated.
- Avoid a large meal within 3-4 hours of bedtime.
- Computers, phones and tablets emit a specific light frequency that stops the brain from relaxing, so avoid these before bed and if possible, turn off the TV and read a book (a proper one, or at least a black and white Kindle) before retiring.
You can tell from the points above that preparation for sleep is important and what you do within a few hours of bedtime can make all the difference.
Stress is part and parcel of life. It’s inevitable, unavoidable and highly personal. What makes one person tear their hair out, simply washes over another. But if you feel that you’re ticking all the right boxes with diet and lifestyle and still struggling to lose weight, look closely at your stress levels and sleeping patterns and you may find the answer to the problem.
Keep up the fight and win the inch war.
Paul & Ann
Get Physical Personal Training
- Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organ
- Stress, breakfast cereal consumption and cortisol
- Sleep and Metabolism: An Overview
We (Paul and Ann, Get Physical Ltd) are not doctors, nor are we licensed medical professionals. This website and blog is not here to diagnose any medical condition or replace your health care provider.