Stress is the modern equivalent of being chased by a mammoth which you promised your wife you would bring back for dinner and knowing how ‘disappointed’ she is going to be when you fail to do so! In our modern world we have a different set of stress triggers and it can certainly cause you to gain weight and certainly sabotage your efforts to lose excess fat. Stress is silent and can be deadly. It is useful to understand why we react in this way and to manage this natural response to life’s ups and downs.
WHAT CAUSES A STRESS REACTION?
Stress is the modern day equivalent of our ancestral ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that was necessary in the highly competitive and predatory world throughout our evolution. There may no longer be cave lions or mammoths in our world but the modern day alternatives can be just as daunting.
A threatening or tense situation triggers this stress response demanding that we take physical action. Unfortunately most modern day stress involves situations that we cannot run away from such as relationship issues, a demanding job and boss, financial worries and traffic jams on the way home. There are two types of stress. Acute and Chronic stress and both have very distinctive patterns.
Acute stress is a short-term response by the body’s sympathetic nervous system and the response may only last for a few minutes, days or a few weeks. How many times have you said that your heart stopped or your stomach lurched during a moment of intense stress such as an accident? We have all heard stories of mothers and fathers who have been suddenly infused with superhuman strength and able to lift cars and other heavy objects off their trapped children. They are empowered to do this by the actions of their body in a moment of crisis.
Blood sugar levels rise and additional red blood cells are released to carry strength giving oxygen levels a boost. The pulse quickens, blood pressure rises and the digestive process stops to enable the focus to be entirely on regaining safety.
Chronic Stress is when this acute stress response is repeated on a continuous basis. Whilst the body after a few hundred thousand years is well able to handle the occasional stress response and in fact uses it positively, if the response becomes a normal way of life, other parts of the brain and body become involved leading to long term damage.
For example on-going stress causes the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland that are the master controllers for the body to release a chemical called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol which disrupts sleep patterns leading to increased levels of stress. Our bodies are simply not designed to live at high alert for sustained periods of time; it just wears it down leading to illness.
Symptoms of stress can be subtle such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, headaches, back or neck pain, irritability and sudden weight loss or gain. The less common but more damaging are heart palpitations, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, nausea, panic attacks, inability to concentrate and chronic fear. If not controlled stress leads to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and ulcers. Mental health is also affected as people struggle to contain what is essentially a heightened sense of fear.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT WEIGHT GAIN AND LOSS?
I understand after all these years, that my relationship with food has always been dependent on my stress levels. It is learned behaviour. As a child our parents or older family members did not just reward us with sweets and food if we had been good. They would also indulge us if we skinned our knees, banged our heads, were frightened by next door’s dog, and had an earache. How many of us have run off, lost sight of our mother or father, been in panic mode, been found and given a great big hug, lots of attention even if it meant being scolded, everybody so happy to see you. “Come on we will all have an ice-cream. That will make it feel better”. How many times have we seen the toddler, working up a head of steam, stamping feet, getting red in the face being appeased by a cuddle and some food?
What I want to illustrate is that we are not just at the mercy of outside stress we also are quite capable of working ourselves up into a frenzy and creating a physical response that activates all the same reactions. The expression “worrying myself to death” is firmly established in our modern language.
If you are mentally, physically and emotionally under pressure, being concerned about the food you are putting in your mouth seems to take a back seat. Just give me chocolate!
Also when hormones like cortisol which have normal, daily functions in the body are being secreted all the time, some of your maintenance systems are affected. Cortisol should be at different levels at certain times of the day – highest in the morning and lowest last thing at night. This makes sense as it helps maintain a healthy blood pressure, raising it early in the morning as you wake up and decreasing it as you go to sleep.
You can imagine how confused the body is going to get if you are pumping cortisol into the system at increased levels throughout the day in response to your stress triggers. Cortisol is also necessary for metabolism or the fats and carbohydrates that we eat for that fast hit of energy and also the management of insulin and blood sugar levels.
We all know that sugar high that we get after eating too many sweet foods and then the sudden drop that urges us to consume even more of the nectar…. And that is why diving into the chocolate biscuits or the tub of ice-cream when stressed is so predictable. Particular if this has been your learned response since childhood.
As I mentioned earlier during a stress response the digestive process stops. That may be fine for an hour or two but if you are stressed the whole time you are not going to be able to process any healthy foods that you do eat efficiently. Long term this can lead to nutritional deficiency syndrome that encourages your body to store rather that utilise fat.
So if you are on a weight loss programme and even if you are eating a wonderfully rich diet of unprocessed foods, if you do not get your stress levels reduced, you will find it difficult to lose the excess weight.
HOW CAN WE MANAGE MODERN DAY STRESS AND SUCCESSFULLY LOSE WEIGHT?
When I started this theme of weight loss, I mentioned that we need to have a three dimensional approach to losing weight.
Physically, mentally and emotionally.
The physical is getting the foods right and by consuming non industrialised foods (some of our foods have to be processed such as milk, cheese so it is wrong to cut out all processed foods). We also need to limit our sugary food intake as this causes a chemical imbalance in our blood that encourages storage particularly around our middles. You need to consistently provide your body with the basic nutrients it needs on a daily basis to function efficiently and healthily.
But you also need to back this up by recognising where you are in real terms in the stress cycle – acute or chronic? Is the stress external or are you the one that is creating the stress yourself. Whatever the origin you have to learn how to drop the threat level. This is not just about losing weight but preventing possible long term health problems.
A major challenge is to make the stress in your life work for you instead of against you. Stress is now on tap 24/7; you only have to switch on a communication device including the mobile one in your pocket, to get a slice of world stress. At another level we have our own personal stress and we also affected by the stress we inflict on others around us. We have all heard the term ‘mass hysteria’ and you can see the affect if you watch an audience of mainly teenage girls at a One Direction concert. Within minutes thousands are screaming, crying, some are distraught. This might only be for a 2 hour concert but it is still a stress reaction. In more subtle ways this happens to our family and friends as our behaviour raises their stress levels. You need to recognise if this is your pattern and if so learn how to adapt that behaviour for your own health’s sake and those around you.
Finding ways to reduce both externally and internally created stress is a challenge. It is unique and personal to each of us because we all handle it in a different way. So personal in fact that what may be relaxing for one person may be extremely stressful to another. One person may delight in throwing themselves out of a plane at 15,000 feet attached to a small, silk umbrella which would frankly freak me out!! A busy executive might find a beach holiday boring and unproductive leading to stress whereas another can completely chill out.
Although too much emotional or mental stress can cause physical illnesses such as high blood pressure, ulcers or even heart disease, physical stress from work or exercise is very unlikely to cause these problems, unless you really do overdo it. The truth is that physical exercise can help you relax and to handle your emotional and mental stress. That is another good reason to include a regular exercise programme alongside the changes you have made to your foods.
Here are some basic techniques to help you manage whatever stress you do have in your lives. It would be a perfect world where we had absolutely no worries whatsoever but I am afraid there are only a few people who live in that serene an environment.
- It is easier said than done, but you must find a way to relax that suits you. Think carefully about what makes you feel alive but calm, that gives you satisfaction and creates a feel good factor. For you as an individual it could be skiing down a mountain or it could be walking along a sandy beach at sunset. As unique as the causes of stress are, so are the ways that we find to counteract the tension.
- Next time you begin to hyperventilate, and start getting wound up, saying things like “I’m freaking out!” take a breath and check to see if this is an external threat that needs to be dealt with or it is your own creation. If in doubt walk away and find somewhere you can think about the situation for a few minutes calmly and rationally. Of course if you are faced with immediate physical danger then you need to do whatever you must to survive.
- If you really cannot think of anything on your own then find yourself a professional advisor who can help you find your bit of space and peace. Learn relaxation techniques and new coping mechanisms that are not based on your reward system. It is always a good idea to find someone who has been referred by a friend or family matter but your G.P should also be able to recommend someone.
- Keep to a regular sleep pattern, although people do need varying amounts of sleep the average is seven hours. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time even at the weekends. Lack of sleep is one of the leading causes of stress and has been linked to weight gain
- Try to find at least 30 minutes in the day when you are not being bombarded by any outside stimulus. Music does not count. As you know I consider it to be another food group, and provided it is your favourite type of music, sticking your headphones on and closing your eyes for half an hour will help break the cycle of daily stress.
- I am afraid that stimulants such as cigarettes and alcohol and recreational drugs are absolutely the wrong things to rely on during a stress episode. As hard as it may be, avoid these at all costs.
DIET AND STRESS.
A healthy diet is absolutely necessary whatever lifestyle we have but if we are under excessive levels of stress then it becomes critical.
Make sure that you are hydrated. Dehydration is a leading physical cause of stress and you need at least 2 litres of fluids from various sources per day and more if you are exercising hard or live in countries with very low humidity. (See last Friday’s blog) This is particular important for young children – they need moderate amounts of fluids regularly as their small bodies get dehydrated very quickly.
We have already established that when the body is under stress, the digestive process is compromised and your body will use stored nutrients in an effort to keep the systems functioning. However, if the stress situation continues for a period of weeks or months you will not be replacing these stored vitamins and minerals and you need to increase levels of particular foods as they contain specific vitamins and minerals which the body needs.
The shopping lists that I have already given you have plenty of these vitamins, however, they are basic levels needed during normal activity and you need to up slightly during stressful times. If you cannot eat because you are stressed then at the very least make some homemade soup – Chicken and vegetables, blitz in a blender and drink three or four cups during the day.
VITAMINS ESSENTIAL FOR THE BODY TO MANAGE STRESS.
Vitamin A mops up the toxic residue of elevated stress hormone levels. (Liver, fish oils, butter, cheese, Free range eggs, oily fish and Beta-carotene that converts to Vitamin A from carrots, green leafy vegetables such as asparagus and broccoli, spinach, orange and red coloured vegetables such as apricots)
Vitamin B1 improves your mood and is vital for nerve function. (Whole grains, seeds, peas, beans and nuts.)
Vitamin B3 helps you regulate your sleep patterns. (Liver, brewer’s yeast, chicken, turkey, fish, meat, peanuts, whole grains, eggs and milk.)
Vitamin B5 better known as Pantothenic Acid controls the action of the adrenal glands, which play a vital part in the stress response. (Liver, yeast, salmon, dairy, eggs, grains, meat and vegetables.
Vitamin B6 is essential for the manufacture of the brain chemical serotonin which is also called the feel good chemical. (Potatoes, bananas, cereals, lentils, liver, turkey, chicken, lamb, fish, liver, avocados, soybeans, walnuts and oats.)
Vitamin B12 is necessary to help produce brain chemicals such as serotonin (dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and fish, for vegetarians in Miso and Tempeh both fermented soybean products)
Vitamin C is one of those vitamins that is used up very quickly during a stress reaction and needs to be replaced immediately as a deficiency leads to increased levels of anxiety and irritability. Smokers should take in Vitamin C in their diet and under the supervision of a professional should also take supplemental Vitamin C. (found in all fruit and vegetables but best sources are blackcurrants, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cherries, grapefruits, guavas, kiwi fruit, lemons, parsley, peppers, rosehips, potatoes, tomatoes and watercress.)
MINERALS NECESSARY TO HELP THE BODY MANAGE STRESS.
Calcium helps you relax. (Dairy, sardines, canned salmon with the bones, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and soy products such as tofu.)
Magnesium works with calcium and also helps to reduce stress. (Whole grains, beans, seeds, wheat germ, dried apricots, dark green vegetables, soybeans and fish)
Chromium stabilises blood sugar levels that create stress. (Brewer’s yeast, whole grains, shellfish, liver and molasses)
As we get older and our body less efficient in processing foods it can be a good idea to take the B-vitamins in supplement form. Make sure you get good advice and get the best quality you can. If you feel that you are under stress for long periods of time, do not be afraid to ask for help from a nutritionist and get some counselling.
Finally something to watch to calm your frayed nerves from reading this lengthy blog on stress.. I would not want you tearing your hair out in frustration! Down girls……..
You can find all the other posts in the series on Weight Reduction in this directory.
Please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section and if you would like a private word then please email me firstname.lastname@example.org.