Stressing Ourselves Sick
Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to our health than our food choices and body size. Our mental health and wellbeing is just as important as the food at the end of your fork. Managing your stress levels is an important part of your overall health and wellbeing with research showing that living with high levels of stress can wreak havoc on your physical and mental wellbeing from your sleep, to your weight and even your food choices!
What is stress?
Stress, in everyday terms, is a feeling that people have when they are overloaded, overwhelmed or struggling to cope with life’s demands. Common stressors include a lack of social support, difficult relationships, personal conflicts with friends and family, stressful work environments, finances, poor self-esteem, a lack of work life balance, caring for a sick loved one, low self-esteem, poor health and illness or simply being overwhelmed with juggling life itself.
When our stress system is activated it sets off a chain reaction within the body to help us overcome the perceived ‘danger’ including:
- An increased production of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
- Faster breathing
- Muscle tension
- Heightened state of alertness
- A reduction in immune function
Not all stress is detrimental to our health and it is essential for our survival. In fact, short-term stress can be a helpful motivator for example when you’re working hard to meet a deadline or when you need to avoid danger. Stress becomes unhealthy when our “fight-or-flight” mechanism is activated too easily or for too long, or when we have too many stressors occurring at one time as it starts to affect our mental and physical health.
What are the side effects of stress?
- Increased inflammation
- Insomnia and sleeping difficulties
- Weight gain, particularly around the stomach
- Low mood
- Memory issues
- Gastrointestinal issues including reflux, bloating, diarrhoea, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Impaired immune system
- Muscle tension
- High blood sugar levels
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart disease, stroke and immune disorders
- Chronic fatigue
- Absent or irregular menstrual cycles
- Reduced fertility and sex drive
- Increased reliance on drugs and alcohol
- Relationship issues
- Social isolation
- Changes in appetite (either increased or decreased)
- Emotional eating
Could your stress levels be affecting your weight?
Research points to the fact that chronic stress may play a role in weight gain for some individuals. For example, people commonly report overeating and reaching for comfort foods typically high in calories, sugar and fat during periods of high stress. The stress hormone cortisol is also known to play a role in metabolism and fat storage which may provide a possible link between stress and gaining weight. For example cortisol has been shown to influence the amount of visceral fat in the body, a dangerous type fat that sits around the organs. Cortisol is also known to cause the distribution of fatty tissue around the abdominal region as well as an increase in appetite. One proposed theory for this is that consistently elevated levels of cortisol causes blood sugar levels and insulin levels to rise, which contributes to weight gain around the mid-section and organs (visceral obesity).
A 2017 study looked at the relationship between chronic stress and obesity and found that chronic stress was consistently linked with people being more heavy and more overweight. Researchers collected data over a four-year period as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a study that follows a large group of people aged 50 and older. They found that people who had higher levels of cortisol in their hair tended to have a larger waist circumference, were heavier, and had a higher body-mass index (BMI). When they looked back at people’s weight over a period of four years, they saw that those who had more persistent obesity had higher hair cortisol measurements than those whose weight had fluctuated or who had consistently been a healthy weight
How can you better manage your stress levels?
- Talk it out: Talking to a family member, friend, doctor, counsellor or psychologist can help immensely.
- Maintain a healthy social support network: Often during times of stress people can isolate themselves. Having a ‘tribe’ or social support is an important part of our health. This could include a mothers group, book clubs, sporting group, church or neighbourhood.
- Engaging in regular physical exercise: Studies show that regular physical activity and exercise can improve a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. Exercise is also a great opportunity to socialise with others and relieve any tension.
- Focus on your breath: Mindfulness meditation, tai chi, yoga and various other breathing and relaxation techniques can slow down the stress response and help you relax.
- Prioritise your sleep: Watching netflix until midnight may help you feel better in the moment, but aiming for 7-9hrs of good quality sleep will do you a world of good. Inadequate sleep is known to elevate our stress response and lower our tolerance for stressful situations that may arise the following day.
- Learn to deal with your emotions in a healthy way: Drinking alcohol, eating excessive amounts of snack foods or smoking may help in the moment but using these methods to deal with stress simply amplifies the negative impacts of stress on the body. Find alternative and more healthy ways of dealing with any negative emotions such as journalling, exercising or talking to a friend.
- Maintain a healthy diet: Focus on consuming whole-foods such as whole-grains, fruit, vegetables nuts, seeds, legumes, oily fish and limiting your intake of nutrient-poor processed foods. This will help to offset some of the negative impacts of stress on the body. More and more research is also showing how important a healthy diet is when it comes to reducing our risk of anxiety and depression.
- Prioritise self-care: Its easy to put ourselves last when we have an infinite to do list. However, set some time aside for yourself as often as possible to relax, unwind or enjoy a hobby such as playing a game of golf, grabbing a meal with a friend, scheduling a massage or getting a pedicure.
- Change your perspective: Life is undoubtedly busy and it is easy to be overcome overwhelmed by all the things we need to do. Simply changing your perspective can help. For example, instead of focusing on all the things you haven’t done at the end of the day, reflect on all the things you have achieved. Instead of focusing on what you ‘have’ to do , be grateful for the opportunities available to you. Having a positive attitude instantly changes how we perceive life’s little or big challenges.
- Prioritise Prioritise Prioritise: Write down what needs to be done and prioritise what is most important and focus on that.
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- Jackson et al. Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population‐based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. 2017
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- Dallman MF. Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system.2010. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. 21(3):159-65.