Lorn Healthy Options weekly health tip – March 24

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Could stress be causing your weight gain?

Our modern, busy lives can often leave us feeling stressed and anxious and a common result is poor eating habits revolving around sporadic meal times and comfort eating.

It would seem obvious this is a main driver of weight gain in today’s society, but perhaps the stress we are feeling is having a more profound affect on us on a hormonal level and points to the main culprits in gaining body fat.

Cortisol is the so called ‘stress hormone’ which initiates the fight or flight response, a set of physiological responses to perceived threats. In our early ancestors, this response would have been mainly physical, for example to leg it away from a predator.

The subsequent release of cortisol prepares our bodies for action, to fight back or get out of there. This preparation includes a release of adrenaline to increase blood flow to the working muscles but critically it also enhances glucose availability to fuel those muscles.

All energy is directed towards survival and most other bodily processes are temporarily restricted. Normally there would follow a period of intense physical activity to burn up the excess glucose and shortly afterwards you would either have been lunch for a Sabre Tooth Tiger or lived to tell the tale. Cortisol and glucose levels would have returned to normal levels in the aftermath and you go on about your caveman business.

Fast forward to our modern world and as a result of our stressful and busy lives, the same cortisol response is ignited on a long-term basis and this brings us a problem. Financial worries, work problems, marital issues, childcare concerns and sleep deprivation are all major stressors and cause elevated cortisol and glucose levels.

However, none of these forms of stress are associated with a period of high intensity activity to burn off the glucose. Higher blood glucose levels result in a higher secretion of insulin and long term this can lead to insulin resistance within the muscle tissue and liver. Insulin resistance means even more insulin must be released to lower blood sugar levels and we know that this situation is one of the main drivers of obesity. Over time, it can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.

During chronic stress, cortisol, blood glucose and insulin levels can be elevated for long periods of time encouraging weight gain, especially if we choose to make ourselves feel a little better with high calorie treats. Many will blame the high calorie food as the main reason for their weight gain during periods of stress, but a much greater risk could be the stress itself and our hormonal response to it.

Instead of prioritising dietary control at this time, a more effective solution could be to combat the source of the stress and find ways of reducing the cortisol release such as exercise, talking therapies, mindfulness, creative hobbies and meditation. Our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked and one cannot flourish without the other.

If long-term stress and weight gain have become a problem in your life, it may be worth talking with your GP about Healthy Options where we can perhaps help you to turn things around with a little specialist guidance.

Rob Graham, lead exercise professional, Healthy Options.