Stress: it’s something we all have to deal with. Stress is a natural part of life, and in the short term, it is a healthy reaction that helps us deal accordingly with conflict. However, when stress continues over a long period of time, our health can go awry.
One of the negative side effects of chronic stress is, unfortunately, weight gain. The two may seem unrelated at first; however, a body of research suggests that stress can indeed contribute to piling on the pounds.
1. Stress encourages the body to accumulate fat
When we are stressed out, our bodies respond to food differently than when we are relaxed. Specifically, under stress, our nerve cells release neuropeptide Y, a molecule that encourages the body to store fat.
So, the more stressed we are, and the longer we are stressed, the more weight we can potentially gain. If you are suffering from chronic stress, you may be eating the same type and the same amount of food as always, but notice yourself gaining more weight.
2. Stress may lead to dangerous belly fat
Living in a state of stress can lead not only to general weight gain, but also to weight accumulation around your middle. This is because elevated stress leads to an overproduction of cortisol in the body. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” encourages the body to store weight around the abdomen.
This type of fat, called “belly fat” or visceral fat, is an extremely dangerous type of fat to carry. This is because it coats the organs and encourages system-wide inflammation. Inflammation can then lead to a host of health problems, such as heart disease, autoimmune disease, and insulin resistance.
Stress and the accumulation of belly fat can also become a dangerous cycle: belly fat itself triggers more cortisol to be produced in the body.
3. Stress may trigger unhealthy food cravings
Many people get serious food cravings when they are stressed out, usually for less-than-healthy foods. Baked, carbohydrate-rich snacks such as cookies are especially popular “comfort foods.” We likely crave these foods because carbs temporarily raise serotonin levels, which mitigates the stress for a short time.
If this becomes habit, we start eating these carb-filled foods as a form of self-medication. This does nothing to address stress long term, and it can obviously lead to quite a bit of weight gain.
How to free yourself from the grasp of chronic stress
For the sake of your waistline, and your overall health, it’s imperative to get your stress under control. The following are six simple steps to do just that.
1. Eat clean
The first step to a healthy life, and to reduced stress levels, is reexamining what’s on your plate. Processed foods contain a variety of additives, sugars, and preservatives that may trigger mood swings and lead to weight gain.
Whole, fresh, preferably organic foods from the Earth give your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. Organic, whole foods are free of all the balance-disrupting garbage that fake foods made in a lab contain.
2. Get some sleep
If you’re deficient in sleep, you’re probably feeling pretty darn stressed. We need between seven and eight hours of sleep each night to function properly — that includes the function of our stress response system. In fact, if we regularly don’t get enough sleep, our bodies cannot heal properly.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, check out these natural tips to get your sleep cycle back on track.
3. Get moving
One of the best ways to relieve stress is exercise. Exercise gives you an endorphin rush, which makes you feel great and helps to nix any built-up anxiety. Additionally, we’ve reported on a study out of Sweden which found that exercise helps the body release kynurenine, a byproduct of stress, from the blood.
Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity each day. If you’re feeling particularly stressed, try an hour! Bonus points if you’re able to exercise outside in the sun: vitamin D can do wonders for your mood.
4. Organize your time
One of the biggest causes of stress is an overly crammed schedule. If you set yourself up to be overworked — running from one errand, appointment and event to the next with no breathing time — you’re going to be consumed by stress, with no foreseeable way out.
The simple solution to this is to clear your schedule as much as possible. Decide to say no to the nonessentials, and spread out essential appointments as much as you can. Make sure to schedule yourself some free time, as well, so you can focus on doing things that relax you as often as possible.
5. Let it out
When you let your stress build up over a period of time, you’re setting yourself up for an explosion. Instead of bottling it up, find ways to let it out. Exercise is one great way to do this, but often, we need to talk through our problems in order to find effective solutions.
Sometimes, talking to a trusted friend may be all you need. Take time to get coffee with a confidant, and talk through your stress. Don’t forget to be a listening ear to your friend, too!
For serious stress and anxiety, you may wish to enlist the help of a therapist who can help you get to the root of your problems. It may take some searching, but once you find a therapist you connect with, it can be a very positive and helpful experience.
Another thing that can be very helpful is journaling. Many people express themselves better in written form. If you take time to journal each day, going back and reading what you’ve written can give you insight on your patterns, and possibly ideas on how to change them for the better.
6. Find your zen space
To break the cycle of chronic stress, and keep yourself in a relaxed mindset, try implementing a stress-relieving practice into your daily routine. Meditation and yoga are both ancient, time-tested practices for relieving stress and centering your mind in the present.
For some people, doing something creative, such as painting, drawing, knitting or gardening, brings them to their place of zen. Your “zen” activity can be anything, really. Anything can be done mindfully, so choose something that makes you happy and helps you to unwind.
How do you combat the stress cycle? Any secrets to share?