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The stress-weight connection

Stress is a major problem for many New Zealanders, and it affects more than just our mood. Simone McClenaughan investigates.

A 2010 survey of HFG readers revealed 42 per cent of our readers felt stressed. While stress is something we can’t always avoid, our diet — and other factors such as exercise — can help provide relief.

Clinical psychologist Dr Cindy Nour specialises in stress, anxiety and health. “Stress”, explains Dr Nour, “is an accumulation of things that lead to a stress reaction. It occurs when you have too many demands and not enough resources to meet them. Normal levels of stress are essential for you to perform and stay interested in life and your daily activities. However, too much stress can lead you to feel overwhelmed and [result in] a reduction in performance and activities.”

One of the biggest stressors for many people is work. Finances, thinking about the future, health and relationships follow close behind. Other common stressors include sex, family get-togethers and Christmas.

Nutritionist Alison Martin, who is doing her PhD in mental health and diet, says: “Stress can also arise as a consequence to the way you treat your body and not having what it takes to recover”. A lack of exercise, sleep or fresh air, a busy lifestyle, as well as what you’re putting into your body — such as an unhealthy diet, alcohol and drugs — can also result in stress. Left unchecked, stress can escalate and have more serious consequences for your physical and mental health — so it is important to try to manage stress as soon as it begins to affect you.

Stress and your weight

Another potential side effect of unchecked stress is weight gain. “Prolonged stress can result in cortisol (the stress hormone) increasing,” says Dr Nour. Studies published in the journal Obesity found that increased stress, and the production of cortisol, can cause hunger and ultimately, weight gain.

The other hormone that contributes to weight gain in stressful times is ghrelin. It is the hormone that tells us we are hungry and, according to research published in Neuropsychopharmacology, it also increases cortisol levels, which makes us even hungrier. This is concerning when it comes to stress, as eating is a common coping mechanism.

“People often engage in [other] unhelpful coping strategies, such as increased alcohol and drug use, rather than more helpful coping strategies which include exercising, talking to a friend, or problem-solving the issues causing stress,” says Dr Nour.

If stress is affecting your eating and sleeping habits, work, study and relationships, or if you are feeling overly-anxious and worried, it’s time to see your doctor and discuss the option of talking to a professional.

“Stress can get in the way of good judgement and decision-making. It can help talking to someone for some perspective and strategies to assist you to better be able to cope,” says Dr Nour.

Symptoms of stress

These manifest in three main ways:

  1. Physical: Headaches, migraines, upset stomach, muscle tension, disturbed sleep, higher blood pressure, changes to appetite
  2. Mental: Poor attention, concentration and memory, difficulty making decisions
  3. Emotional: Anxiety, low mood, irritability, nervousness.

If you’re feeling stressed, there are some simple ways you can alleviate or even prevent stress — many of which involve diet choices and exercise.

It’s important to identify the things causing your stress — then you can devise techniques to handle or avoid these stressors. This may involve preparing yourself for stressful situations, learning to delegate more tasks at work or approaching a friend, colleague or family member and confiding in them you need help.

“Exercising is also helpful as it combats cortisol,” says Dr Nour. Regular exercise is the key, as it produces a chemical response (endorphins) that triggers positive feelings. Not only does exercise help you work out frustrations and clear your mind, it encourages the body to produce serotonin (a hormone linked to mood and stress levels) which helps you get a good night’s sleep — a key component in managing stress.

Alison says that a balanced diet also “helps our body build resilience to everyday stressors.” Amanda Clark, a nutritionist specialising in mental health, and author of Portion Perfection, couldn’t agree more. “Our bodies react really well to routine and by consuming enough of all nutrients you’re providing the baseline for an appropriate response to stress.”

In addition to a balanced diet, certain nutrient-rich foods are particularly helpful when it comes to managing stress — while other foods can fuel it.

The biggest ‘stress-fuelling’ foods are high-glycaemic (high GI) foods that are loaded with sugar and white flour. High-GI foods are quickly absorbed into the body, which makes insulin levels rise. This results in a spike in serotonin and tryptophan, which is a pre-cursor to serotonin.

“The problem with this is that insulin, tryptophan and serotonin levels will drop again and this creates feelings of irritability and depression,” says Amanda.

This constant see-sawing can be avoided by eating low-GI foods (such as low-fat dairy, wholegrains and legumes) that release energy slowly and keep insulin and serotonin levels stable.

The UK Food and Mood Project studied 200 people aged 26-55 and found that the common foods that increase feelings of stress are: sugar, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, foods with additives and foods high in saturated fat.

Ironically, the foods that stoke the stressful fire are also the ones we tend to turn to when we are stressed. This is a result of two things: firstly, when stressed we feel we need an ‘energy kick’ and that is often found in high-kJ foods.

Secondly, it seems that surviving a stressful situation creates a desire to participate in pleasurable activities, like eating high-energy food.

A study on stress and food choices at University College London found that stressed, emotional eaters gravitated towards sugary, high-fat foods and a more energy-dense meal than the test group of unstressed and non-emotional eaters.

To feel good, we need the base of a good diet that provides enough low-GI carbohydrate at regular times to keep blood glucose steady, a variety of protein throughout the day, plus essential vitamins, minerals and good fats to keep us healthy.

  • Eat three meals each day starting with a low-GI breakfast. Our brains need a steady supply of energy to concentrate and focus.
  • Stay well hydrated to avoid ‘fuzzy’ brain. Caffeine can be a nice kick-start but after that go for water or herbal tea.
  • Ensure adequate iron intake: include three red meat meals each week.
  • To enhance iron absorption, avoid drinking tea at meals. Add vitamin C to meals with oranges or kiwifruit (especially important for vegetarians).
  • Up your vegetable intake, and include lots of colour and variety, to boost essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Snack on two Brazil nuts each day to boost selenium.

HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull says stress and fatigue are some of the most asked-about problems in her seminars and clinics.

Q. How does being constantly stressed impact our weight?

Your body can cope with some stress — but it really isn’t designed to cope with stress all day every day. There are various hormonal changes which happen in your body in response to stress including an increase in adrenalin and cortisol which are produced by your adrenal glands. When your body has to put up with constantly churning out large amounts of these stress hormones (which is really doesn’t like to do) it has flow-on effects on your overall health and well-being. Having these hormones pumping around your body all the time changes the way your body deals with food and the net result can be that you may gain weight or find it very difficult to shift kilos.

Q. Why does being stressed make us feel tired all the time (fatigued) even when we think we are sleeping well?

As well as impacting on your weight, with the constant pressure on your adrenal glands to pump out stress hormones your body just doesn’t get to relax properly! You may feel like you sleep OK and maybe aren’t waking up in the night, but the ‘quality’ of your sleep may be very poor and crucially, your body won’t be getting the opportunity to recover and repair itself as it needs to.

Q. What are some of the most common mistakes you see people making that cause them to be stressed out?

  • Trying to be perfect at everything
  • Committing to too many things — not being able to say no
  • Not being able to prioritise their time and becoming overwhelmed
  • Not allowing any rest time
  • Not sleeping enough

Q. What are some ways we can combat this stress?

  • Accept that sometimes you won’t be able to get everything done, work out what is most important and start working on that first.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support if you need it. There will be people around you who will be happy to help if you just ask.
  • Allow yourself time to relax before going to bed. Turn the TV off, computer off, no checking emails. If anything is bothering you, write it all down and get it out of your head before you hit the sack.
  • Breathe. If you feel yourself starting to get stressed, stop for a minute or so and take slow deep breaths to calm yourself and re-focus (see Take a breather, below).
  • Get outside every day. You need fresh air and sunlight for good health and well-being
  • Keep fit. Exercising can help you manage stress. For some it will be walking, a gym class or bike ride, for others it will be yoga or pilates.
  • Don’t overdo the coffee. Having too much caffeine can put pressure on your adrenal glands.

Q. What about people who tend to lose appetite (and lose weight) when stressed?

Not everyone reacts in the same way to stress hormones. If you know you tend to lose your appetite when you’re anxious and stressed, plan ahead so you can address it early on, otherwise it can become a vicious cycle of not eating and feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Work out in advance the types of foods you know you will feel like eating, and try to have them on hand. It’s OK to eat small quantities of food — if you can’t face dinner it’s OK to have an egg on toast or a bowl of cereal. A yoghurt and a piece of fruit or half a sandwich for lunch is better than nothing. Aim to eat small portions of healthy foods as often as you can.

Feeling frazzled? Try taking a deep breath to help you quickly de-stress.

When stressed, breathing tends to be shallower and in the upper chest — which can result in hyperventilating. Abdominal breathing (using your diaphragm) soothes the nervous system and can help with anxiety, stress and panic attacks. To breathe properly, you need to be aware of your chest and stomach, and find a steady rhythm.

For more information on proper breathing techniques, talk to a pilates or yoga instructor.