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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Is stress sabotaging your weight loss?

Keith says I cross every bridge not before I come to it, but before it's even built. Really, I just think I'm a good problem solver -- and problem "avoider!" Not only do I have Plan A figured out, but also Plan B....and C, and D, and E. My head spins and these "what if" scenarios play out in my head over and over. OK, so maybe I am a bit....high strung.

And now I have one more thing to worry about -- it seems that stress can make (or keep) you fat. As if the other side effects of stress aren't enough! How does stress affect weight? Here are just a few theories.

First, medical experts point to cortisol as one possible culprit. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. Apparently, your body's "fight or flight" response produces elevated levels of these adrenal cortical hormones. It refocuses your biochemical resources and energy on survival and inhibits digestion, suppresses your immune system and raises your blood sugar. Unfortunately, cortisol doesn't discriminate -- it is produced if you're being chased by a lion, or if you're stuck in traffic (the thought of being late is a very big stressor for me!). Chronically elevated cortisol levels cause your body to accumulate abdominal fat and make it very hard to lose weight. Lovely.

And that's not all. Lack of sleep is a surprising one -- if you're too stressed or too busy to sleep, listen to this! According to sleep researchers, your body produces hormones to suppress appetite and to increase appetite (can I get rid of that one?!). When you experience chronic sleep deprivation, your body makes more of the appetite increasing hormone and less of the suppressing one. URG...this is getting worse!

Next are the obvious ones. I think we all recognize that emotional eating, finding solace in comfort foods, and eating to fill a void can contribute to weight gain. I never thought I was an emotional eater, but I've realized that I'm an emotional baker! When I get stressed out, I turn to flour and sugar. I don't know what it is about baking that relaxes me, but my mind stops spinning and I can escape for a while. And even though I don't eat my culinary creations right away, they still manage to disappear. One glaring example is the batch of molasses cookies I baked Sunday night at midnight...that are now gone.

Unfortunately, I've figured out the hard way that stressing about stress doesn't fix it. Quite the contrary. So what can we do? Below are a few tips I've found for reducing stress:

Exercise! For me, nothing takes away the knot in my stomach like the gym. Unfortunately, when I'm stressed, my motivation sometimes disappears, too. But once I'm in the habit of going to the gym, I find that my stress levels are markedly lower. And in addition to helping lower stress, exercise also burns calories, so that's why it's my number one tip.

Get away! Even though a vacation would do the trick, I'm talking about taking little breaks from the stress -- physically or mentally. If work is causing you stress, eat lunch away from your desk. Take a walk. Take an hour for yourself. Write in a journal. Read a book. Call a friend. Anything that takes you away from the stressor for a little bit. Just stay away from the fridge!

Try yoga. I've heard that it works really well for some people -- I'm just not one of them! First of all, I'm not very "bendy." And my balance is terrible. So for me, yoga has just caused me more stress! And when the instructor says to "clear your mind," my racing brain just fills up. But I really want to master a relaxation technique like yoga or meditation, so I'm going to keep trying. Any tips for me?

Find a hobby. OK, so maybe cooking isn't the best example for weight loss -- even though mine is svelte! But what about knitting, golfing, fishing, or biking? Anything that makes you happy, relaxes you, and takes you away from the stress.

Take a bath. For some, there is nothing like a hot bath to calm your nerves. Pour in some soothing, aromatic bubble bath, turn on soft music, or simply close your eyes and pretend you're a million miles away. Let "Calgon take you away!"

Laugh! First of all, laughing is said to reduce cortisol. Yippee! It also increases "feel good" hormones like endorphins and boosts your immune system. Even better, laughing is a great abdominal and cardio workout! So find something -- anything -- to laugh at. Laugh at your spouse. Laugh at the kids. Laugh at the dog and cat. Laugh at a movie. And it's true what people say -- laughing is contagious.

I know many of you are like me. We have to work hard to find ways to reduce stress. And anything that makes losing weight harder just causes more stress. For those of you who are cool as cucumbers, then more power to you! Let us know what you do to keep your stress levels low. We could all use more suggestions!

Don't forget! I'll be hosting a cookbook signing on Thursday, March 18th (tomorrow!) at Silver Belles of Charleston boutique. If you're in Charleston, I would love to see you! Stop in, bring your friends and enjoy complimentary refreshments from The Svelte Gourmet! Visit www.thesveltegourmet.com/news.html for details.

If you're not local but still want a copy of the cookbook, The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses is available at www.thesveltegourmet.com/products.html.



Jessica said...

I also bake (bread) and make stock when I am stressed. Many years ago, when I realized that I *do* have nice handwriting and I want to keep it, I decided to hand write a letter each week... to anyone! So I find that stress-relieving -- just writing a nice, newsy letter to a family member or friend. I also knit (which stresses my husband out, so I don't get to do it as often as I'd like), and read, and I LOVE to watch TV (I wasn't allowed to as a kid -- I'm making up time!).

Thanks for the post, Jen -- Maybe next Sunday night you can write me a nice letter ;)

The Svelte Gourmet said...

I know Keith would be stressed if I was knitting for fear I would make him wear the finished product. =) But why does it stress out your husband? Is it the clicking of the needles?

I love the letter writing idea...I will have to try that! Thanks!

Demeter Speaks said...

Try pilates! You get many of the same meditative benefits as you would with yoga with very little need for good balance. Mat pilates are all done on lying down or sitting. (And it would probably help improve your balance as it strengthens your core.)

Amanda said...

I also like to have a little relaxing ritual of a cup of herbal tea in the evenings - herbs like chamomile and lemon balm (melissa) were used in traditional medicine to relax and de-stress people. It's a soothing evening practice that gets you ready to sleep (and I think has health benefits!). Cutting back on the caffeine in general can help reduce stress/anxiety too :)

The Svelte Gourmet said...

I love Pilates! And you're right, they are great for relaxation, as well as strength training. Cutting caffeine is also a great idea -- I try to keep mine to coffee in the morning and water the rest of the day!