Can Stress Make You Fat?

Stress affects our mind and bodies in many ways. It makes you tired, affects your mood but can it also affect your weight?

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Effects of stress

Scientists at the University of Liverpool found that women exposed to a range of mentally and physically stressful tasks take 20 per cent more of the free chocolate they were offered, compared to when they didn’t have to do the tasks. So, 20 per cent more chocolate, expanding waistline … and seems like no-brainer.

But evidence suggests that the stress-fat connection isn’t just down to those uncontrollable urges to eat a packet of cookies. It appears that the effects of stress can alter the way our bodies deal with food — tipping the balance towards storing rather than utilizing — leaving us feeling devoid of energy, and surreptitiously undoing that top button.

Those with the biggest waist measurements reported the highest levels of stress.
-University of California study

Further research from the University of California found that out of 160 women between the ages of 30 and 46, those with the biggest waist measurements reported the highest levels of stress. Dr Pamela Peeke, researcher from the National Institutes of Health in America, discovered that hormones may be responsible for this.

Stress and hormone response to stress

A hormone called CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) rises in response to stress. The increased level triggers a chain of events in the brain, including a release of cortisol and adrenalin (the ‘stress’ hormones), to help prepare the body for action.

Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose to provide fuel for fight or flight while adrenalin primes the nervous system for action. Once the crisis is over, adrenaline disperses, but cortisol — and the glucose it has drawn into the blood — lingers, causing a surge of insulin and stimulating the appetite to encourage the body to restore its fuel stores, to be ready to cope with the next confrontation.

So although we rarely expend any energy in our stressful encounters, we still end up refueling at the vending machine — because we’re hard-wired to do so. And to top it all, this excess body fat is stored ‘viscerally’, or deep within the abdomen, where it raises our risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Solutions to stress and potential weight gain

One of the most obvious ways to solve the problem is to reduce or eliminate stress by changing your lifestyle and learning coping strategies. A sensible approach is to reinstate the flight or fight response with physical activity. Not only will this dissipate those stress hormones, it will also release beta-endorphins, making you feel calm and contented.

Regular workouts will enable you to become more stress-resilient in the future.

Perhaps even more importantly, regular workouts will enable you to become more stress-resilient in the future. The fitter you are, the lower the rise in cortisol under stressful conditions — a point proved in a study from Texas A&M University, which found that physically fit subjects were better able to cope with unexpected physical and mental challenges (like rope climbing and white-water rafting) than unfit subjects. While hurtling down the Zambezi might not be among your daily challenges, you should find that regular workouts help you deal with the sources of stress in your life more ably — as well as ensuring that not being able to squeeze into your skinny jeans isn’t one of them.

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