We are well into the new year and many of us are trying to follow healthier lifestyles and shed the extra kilos that might have packed on over the last few months. It turns out that loosing weight is not as simple as just exercising and eating lettuce, however. If you’re failing to see the results of your hard work, it might be time to consider other factors that are contributing to the muffin top.
In a fascinating interview on Goop, Dr. Sara Gottfried explains that hormonal imbalances are one of the main reasons people struggle to loose weight, with the stress hormone cortisol being the lead culprit. “Your body makes cortisol in response to stress, but most of us run around stressed too much of the time, and our cortisol is off as a result,” she explains. “High or dysregulated cortisol levels wreak havoc over time, depleting your happy brain chemicals like serotonin, robbing your sleep, and making you store fat—especially in your belly. High cortisol is likewise linked to depression, food addiction, and sugar cravings.”
During your natural stress response your body releases a surge of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, the idea being that these will help you to either fight or take flight during a life-threatening situation. Cortisol increases sugar (glucose) in your bloodstream, and suppresses processes that are non-essential in that moment including your digestive system.
This is all perfectly essential when you’re in danger, but our lives are packed with so many non-threatening stress-filled scenarios that most people live with consistently high levels of stress hormones coursing through their blood. Personally I know that stress is my number one health concern. According to mayoclinic.org, overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can lead to health problems like anxiety and depression, weight gain, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems and heart disease.
Dr Gottfried recommends relieving stress by practicing meditation and yoga, talking through potential points of conflict with people in your life and adjusting your diet to introduce more B vitamins and Omega-3, and less stressors like sugar, coffee and alcohol. She also advises against exercise that will spike cortisol levels like CrossFit and extended running, the point being to avoid elements that cause your body to become overly stressed.
The way you think about weightloss also plays a role. It seems you can in fact think yourself thin. According to Dr Mark Hyman, bestselling author and the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, “stressful thoughts activate metabolic pathways that cause weight gain and insulin resistance.” He continues to explain that stress creates hormonal responses that cause weight gain and insulin resistance. Prolonged stress and high cortisol levels can cause high blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and belly fat.
What can you do?
Many people shy away from meditation because it sounds like some hippy / religious mumbojumbo. So let’s call it quiet, reflective thinking. It can help you to gain perspective on stressful situations, increase self-awareness, shift your focus to positive elements in your life and reduce overall negative emotions. It also helps you reconnect with your breathing and become aware of physical and emotional discomforts that you need to address. I prefer to practice meditation with yoga but there are various forms that you can try out.
It is important to choose an exercise type that won’t create further tension and inflammation in your body. On the other hand I’m not going to tell you not to go running. Personally it is my preferred way of clearing my head and getting fit. It is, however, a good idea to vary cardio and HIIT with activities like yoga and pilates that will improve flexibility, deep breathing and personal reflection.
The most important thing is finding something you enjoy doing. Exercise pumps up endorphins, takes your mind off your problems (or gives you the opportunity to think through them), helps to improve sleep and eases anxiety. Getting fit also increases confidence and gives you the feeling of taking charge.
Cut out alcohol
While many people drink to help relieve stress, alcohol can induce the secretion of stress hormones. I’m not saying you can’t have a glass of wine after work, but if you are drinking to relieve tension you might need to reconsider. Find healthier ways to manage stress like exercise and meditation.
Get enough sleep
Sleeping between 7 – 9 hours a night can go a long way in alleviating stress, while less that that will contribute to feelings of anxiety. Interestingly, young adults are finding it increasingly difficult to get a good night’s rest. In an article by the American Psychological Association, younger American Millennials and Gen Xers report getting fewer hours of sleep per night on average, and are more likely than other adults to say they do not get good-quality sleep.
To promote better sleeping habits, try to keep a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up the same time every day, even during weekends and holidays.
You should also try to avoid stressors close to bed time. Put down your cellphone and switch off television screens within two hours of going to sleep. Don’t eat too close to bed time and don’t exercise to late in the evenings. Don’t take work to bed either. Your bedroom should be a space of calm that is only associated with relaxation and sleep.
Eat a healthy diet packet with the right nutrients
Carbs aren’t the devil. They prompt the release of your happy hormone Serotonin. However, it is important to avoid empty carbohydrates and processed foods that cause inflammation. Instead, opt for whole-grain carbohydrates that helps to stabilize blood sugar levels.
Make sure you are getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids , found in fatty fish like trout, salmon and tuna, as well as nuts, seeds and egg yolks. Omega-3 helps to neutralise inflammation in your body and in that way relieves a source of stress. You also need a healthy dose of B-Vitamins, which help to balance your neurotransmitters and help us to manage stress. You can get it from dark leafy veg, fatty fish, nuts, legumes and whole-wheat foods.
Vitamin C is another superstar to introduce to your diet. Studies suggest that it curbs stress hormones and strengthens your immune system. Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus, guava, red and green peppers, kale, broccoli and strawberries. Ask your physician about taking Vitamin C supplements.
Go for a massage
You might think that going for a massage is simply a personal treat but in truth it is a valuable way of controlling stress. It helps to ease muscle tension and improve circulation, and it helps to take your mind off stressful situations for the duration of the treatment.
Build healthy relationships
Having support and affection from friends and family plays an important role. Studies have shown that people who are lonely and struggle with low self-esteem have higher cortisol levels. Make time for the people who are special to you, and make an effort to resolve any issues that could damage these relationships.