How someone deals with stress has a direct impact on their weight. Whether stress leads to drastic weight gain or weight loss varies from person to person, but the fact remains that fear can thwart weight loss efforts. In some cases, stress leads people to make poor food decisions. Read on to learn the shocking connection between stress and weight loss and how a high fat, low carb diet can help people learn better eating habits and manage their stress better. Read all about the keto diet in the Body Reboot book and find out how people have transformed their eating habits, stress and all.
Psychology Today discusses a 2015 study that uncovers how stress causes a desire to eat more. Future studies should reveal how the two correlate and what steps obese people should take to make healthy lifestyle changes (which we also discuss further in this article).
The July 2015 study, “Adipocyte Glucocorticoid Receptors Mediate Fat-to-Brain Signaling,” was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
The exact mechanism of these signals remains enigmatic, but the researchers believe that having an awareness of the “fat-to-brain” feedback loop is a critical first step for breaking this vicious cycle.
In a press release, James Herman, Ph.D., a co-author of the paper and a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati, said,
“Stress causes a desire to eat more, which can lead to obesity. And too much extra fat can impair the body's ability to send a signal to the brain to shut off the stress response. The findings are important and unique because they show that it's not simply the brain that drives the way the body responds to stress.
It moved our understanding of stress control to include other parts of the body. Before this, everyone thought that the regulation of stress was mainly due to the brain. It's not just in the brain. This study suggests that stress regulation occurs on a much larger scale, including body systems controlling metabolism, such as fat.”
The researchers found that a glucocorticoid receptor in fat tissue affects the way the brain controls both stress and metabolism. Initially, such signals from the receptor can be lifesavers, directing the brain to regulate its energy balance and influencing stress responses in a beneficial way. However, over the long-term, this can backfire.
Apparently, hormones known as glucocorticoids activate receptors within fat tissue in a way that triggers a metabolic stress response. In an experiment using mice, the researchers found a unique connection between glucocorticoid signaling in fat tissue and the brain's regulation of energy balance and stress response. Understanding fat-to-brain signaling is a first step toward someday being able to influence the broad, complex relationship between stress, obesity, and fat metabolism.
Now that researchers have established that a fat-to-brain signaling pathway exists, a better understanding of how it functions might someday lead to drugs or other therapies that minimize the negative effects of long-term stress and excess body fat.
WebMD adds to Psychology Today’s findings by mentioning how cortisol directly relates to you feeling the need to overeat or find food for comfort.
Cortisol and Comfort Foods
Levels of “the stress hormone,” cortisol, rise during tension-filled times. This can turn your overeating into a habit. Because increased levels of the hormone also help cause higher insulin levels, your blood sugar drops and you crave sugary, fatty foods.
So instead of a salad or a banana, you’re more likely to reach for cookies or mac and cheese. That’s why they’re called “comfort foods.”
Jason Perry Block, MD, an assistant professor of population medicine at Harvard, says eating can be a source of solace and can lower stress.
“This happens, in part, because the body releases chemicals in response to food that might have a direct calming effect.”
Fatty and sugary foods are usually the big culprits, because lots of us have such a strong love for them.
The bottom line? “More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist.
How your body responds to stress is known as “fight or flight,” as Healthline reveals below. You’ve probably heard of “fight or flight,” and it often correlates to how much you want to eat.
Your body’s “fight or flight” response can speed up your metabolism
When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Also known as the “acute stress response,” this physiological mechanism tells your body it must respond to a perceived threat.
Your body readies itself by releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares your body for vigorous activity, but it can also minimize your desire to eat.
Meanwhile, cortisol signals for your body to temporarily suppress functions that are nonessential during a crisis. This includes your digestive, immune, and reproductive system responses.
Hyperstimulation can lead to gastrointestinal distress
Your body slows digestion during the “fight or flight” response so it can focus on how to respond to the stressor.
This can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, such as:
Chronic stress can amplify these symptoms and result in other underlying conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome.
These changes to your digestive system may cause you to eat less, subsequently losing weight.
Livestrong says that if you have a stressful job, you’re more likely to overeat and gain weight. This sounds discouraging, but there are ways to get back on track and manage your stress. Read on…
A March 2006 article in the “British Medical Journal” stated that employees with chronic work stress have more than double the odds of metabolic syndrome than those without work stress. Metabolic syndrome is defined as a group of risk factors that occur together and increase the risk for stroke and Type II diabetes. The study also provided evidence for the likelihood of links to stress from everyday life with heart disease as well.
Often thought of as an excuse to eat, food cravings and overeating actually have a factual basis behind this effect of stress. Experiencing stressful situations cause the body to undergo a variety of hormonal changes, including the release of adrenaline and cortisol. When a tense situation is over, the release of cortisol results in an increase of appetite. Under chronic stress, these cravings can lead to unwanted weight gain due to high level of cortisol release in the body.
So what can you do to reduce stress and get back on track? Healthline offers some excellent advice:
Although foods high in sugar can provide a quick boost of energy, the comedown is inevitable. When the sugar leaves your bloodstream, it may leave you feeling worse than before.
Foods high in fat and sodium may also make stress worse.
Try to limit or avoid the following until your stress subsides:
Prevention recommends doing exercise to help conquer stress. If you go on the keto diet, you should be careful not to work out too much due to possibly getting the keto flu, but if you stay hydrated and take it easy working out is an excellent thing to do.
That's right, power out some push-ups. “Moving your muscles is an effective, instant stress reliever. It actually fools your body into thinking you're escaping the source of your stress,” says Talbott. “Exercise makes your blood circulate more quickly, transporting the cortisol to your kidneys and flushing it out of your system.” But if push-ups aren't practical, just flexing your hands or calf muscles will help move cortisol along, he says. Even taking a stroll on your lunch break is beneficial. In one study, Talbott found that 18 minutes of walking 3 times per week can quickly lower the hormone's levels by 15%.
Last but not least, an author on Well and Good discussed her experience being on the keto diet (remember, it’s a high fat, low carb diet that leads to weight loss), and how it helped ease her stress and encouraged her to develop a better relationship with food. Since she cut out sugar her blood sugar regulated and she felt much better overall, which also helped prevent anxiety.
It did have some mental benefits—it broke diet habits that were so ritualistic I did them without thinking. “Part of the reason for the detox is getting you to rethink your relationship with food,” Dr. Passler says. “Sometimes, you don’t have access to the outward things that make you happy, like that latte in the morning. It’s important to have inner happiness so you don’t need outward things to make you happy.” I hate to admit it, but the man has a point.
To make the ketogenic diet sustainable for me, I’m pretty strict about sticking to it during the week, but on the weekends, I ease up and eat what I want. But a couple weeks in, a funny thing happens: I realize I feel way better during the week than I do on the weekends.
Maybe it’s the power of the placebo effect, but I honestly feel amazing when eating within the ketogenic guidelines. “It’s all about managing blood sugar levels,” Dr. Passler tells me when I press him for an explanation. The diet cut out all the things that spike blood sugar. Not experiencing those consistent ups and downs make it easier to manage anxiety.
“I also want to point out that you don’t need to be in full ketosis [when the body burns stored fats instead of glucose for energy] to experience the effects,” Dr. Passler says. “You still ate whatever you wanted on the weekends and felt less anxious. The key is being aware of how food changes your mood. Then, you can decide for yourself what’s worth it and what isn’t.”
In the Body Reboot book, we discuss why people should try the keto diet. Stress is a common weight factor for many, but instead of giving up, why not try a diet that works for many?! For a free copy of the book all, you have to do is help us cover shipping and visit this page to get your free copy today!
Sources: Healthline, WebMD, Prevention, Livestrong, Psychology Today, Well and Good
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