Q: Why is it when we are going through bad times and experiences that cause us stress and grief we gain a lot of weight, and what can I do about it?
A: When people go through extended periods of stress, there can be several factors involved that can contribute to unwanted weight gain. These include being out of your usual routine, eating out more often, relying on vending machines, disrupted sleep patterns and not exercising. Or kind friends and neighbors bringing you calorie-dense comfort foods, high in fat and sugar, that are not part of your normal diet.
In addition, the chemicals released in our body in response to stress can be both good and bad. What’s known as the “fight or flight” hormone response to perceived danger can possibly save your life. However, constant exposure to stress hormones can play havoc with your cells and body function and negatively impact your life.
During a stress response, a cascade of hormonal pathways results in the final release of the hormone cortisol that is secreted by the adrenal gland. This hormone can increase one’s appetite and cause blood sugar and insulin imbalance. Once the stress incident is over, circulating cortisol levels should lessen, but if the stress is persistent, the cortisol can stay elevated. When body tissue is exposed to high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods of time, it can cause cellular alterations that promote fat storage. This is linked to the development of abdominal obesity in both men and women.
According to a Harvard Medical School report, studies (mostly in animals) have shown that physical or emotional stress increases the intake of foods high in fat and sugar. The fat and sugar have a feedback effect in the reward center part of the brain that seems to counteract stress. This can contribute to a craving for these high-calorie foods.
Another study concluded that people who had high circulating cortisol levels in response to stress, compared to low-cortisol responders, were more likely to snack heavily in response to their minor, everyday stresses, setting them up for obesity.
Interestingly however, a Finnish study showed that obesity in women was more strongly associated with stress-related eating, whereas men tended to turn to alcohol and cigarettes. Also not a good choice.
The Mayo Clinic’s stress management techniques to combat stress-related weight gain include eating regular meals, not eating when not hungry, keeping high-fat, high-sugar foods out of your environment, and asking yourself “Am I really hungry or anxious?”
Make a concerted effort to engage in regular physical activity or exercise, get adequate sleep and enlist friends and family for social support. Also, countless studies have shown that meditation reduces stress and helps people become more mindful of food choices.
Developing your own “stress reduction toolbox” is also a good idea and a variation of a toolbox idea that we use in managing weight loss. When you have a knot in your stomach that can only be relieved with food, have fresh, crunchy apples on hand. Sitting quietly and munching on a large apple takes time — time to pause, reflect, get your thoughts together and gain control of your moment. If you are not an apple eater, you can substitute another low-calorie, high-fiber food that takes time to eat. Fat-free popcorn comes to mind. Borrowing from the Mayo Clinic’s techniques, you want to have a good pair of walking shoes, a CD of relaxing music and the telephone number of a friend or your pastor. Thinking about what helps you to relax will guide you as to the contents of your own personal stress-reduction toolbox.
Bottom line: The type of stress that comes from bereavement and grief is tremendous. Cortisol produced by the body in response to stress is associated with overeating, with craving high-fat, high-sugar foods and with storing fat deposits in our internal abdominal area. Developing techniques to help you blunt a negative stress response will allow you to have more control of food choices and better weight management.
Ally Gottfried is a registered dietitian at the Community Cancer Center in Roseburg. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.