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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Lower Your Stress, Lower Your Weight

Jan 28, 2015 09:08PM
By Mark Kearns, Ph.D.

Chances are you have experienced stress at one point or another in your life—you may be experiencing it right now. You are probably familiar with its commonly known effects such as headaches, digestive difficulties or feelings of irritability, anxiety or overwhelm. You may also know that chronic stress can lead to long-term health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and ulcers. But did you know that chronic stress can also cause weight gain?

Ongoing stress can result in consistently high levels of cortisol in your body. Cortisol is a hormone that, among other things, regulates metabolism and blood pressure. High levels of cortisol can affect your body’s ability to efficiently utilize the calories you take in. Cortisol plays a role in the fight or flight response to stress by sending signals to your brain to take action.             Often your brain interprets this as a hunger response, particularly for high-carbohydrate foods, which give you a quick burst of energy. However, most stressors in our modern world are not physical threats, but rather mental or emotional ones. So excess calories don’t get used up, but rather end up as extra weight. It’s important to be aware of this prehistoric response and not allow your brain to convince you that a candy bar is the answer to your problems.

The positive side of the relationship between stress and weight gain is that many things you do to reduce your stress levels can also lead to weight loss. Following are eight things you can do to eliminate or at least reduce the effects of stress in your life, and in doing so, lower your weight. The first two may seem obvious, but they are key to addressing the stress and weight gain cycle.

1. We all know that exercise burns calories. It also releases biochemicals (like endorphins) that counter the negative effects of stress hormones and control insulin and sugar levels, and helps you “be in the moment” taking you away from the things that are stressing you out. Research has shown that exercise is highly effective in decreasing anxiety and depression. Exercise plus medication are the most effective in reducing depression in the short term, but exercise has been found to be more effective than just medication or even medication plus exercise, over time.

2. Eat a balanced diet. Make sure that you eat regularly to keep your brain chemicals in balance. If you fill up on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you won’t have room for the simple carbohydrates (found in sweets, baked goods, etc.) that your stressed-out brain may be craving.

3. Don’t skimp on sleep. When you don't get enough rest, cortisol levels rise, making you feel hungry and less satisfied with the food you do eat. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can interfere with cortisol production. Studies have also shown that having a sleep deficit results in lower levels of the leptin, a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of appetite. Pair all this with the fact that your stressed out brain is telling you to eat simple carbs and you have a guaranteed recipe for weight gain.

4. Set personal boundaries and keep them. It is important to know your boundaries and keep them. When you say “yes” to all of the things that you don’t have time for, you say ”no” to other things that may be more important to you. Choose your activities wisely and set realistic expectations for yourself and those around you who want your time and energy.

5. Take time out. Do something self-nurturing every day, no matter how small. Take a few minutes to do something relaxing, like reading the newspaper, strolling through a park or sitting quietly. Make sure that you carve out time for yourself and the things that are important to you.

6. Engage in holistic stress-reduction techniques. There are many stress-reduction techniques you can learn that are highly effective. Activities like yoga, meditation and deep breathing help counter the biochemical effects of stress.

7. Visualization has been found to be effective in reducing anxiety, promoting relaxation, and significantly aiding in positive health outcomes. Research has shown that clearly envisioning an activity or outcome actually activates the areas of the brain associated with that activity or outcome. Guided imagery is used by Blue Shield of California to help people who are undergoing weight loss and smoking cessation programs, and has been found to be highly effective.

8. Look to others for support. Research indicates that social support is important for people in helping to reduce the effects of stress. Spending time with friends and family releases oxytocin, which reduces stress and produces a calming effect. Social support can also come from people beyond your immediate circle of friends and family. Research has shown that group weight loss programs are significantly more effective in helping people takeoff weight and keep it off than programs that don’t have this component.

Because of its effects on your body, chronic stress can make it difficult for you to lose weight when you are trying to, and it can even contribute to weight gain. Now that you have several ideas in hand, what will you do, starting now, to reduce stress or your reaction to stress, in your life? Just think of how much better you will feel, in body and mind and spirit


Mary Kearns is the president and founder of Herban Lifestyle, an organic bath and body product company in Fairfax. She holds a BA in Fine Arts/Communications and a doctorate in Developmental Psychology, with a focus on Health Psychology. For more info, visit:


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