Stress is a major issue in most people’s lives. Whether it is problems with finances, family members, co-workers or even trying to lose weight, it is easy to become overloaded and “stressed out.”  

Stress is defined as a non-specific response of our body to forces that cause us to change or adapt. It is highly individualized and no two people experience stress in the same way. What causes stress in one person may not cause it in another - we all respond to stress differently. For example, stress may make some people eat more and other people eat less.

Many studies have shown that there is a biochemical reaction to stress that result in increased hunger and may cause accumulation of excess abdominal fat. Stress causes the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to be released. The release of cortisol during acute or chronic stress is associated with a number of metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance. Higher levels of cortisol and insulin signal the brain to eat and those people with the highest levels of cortisol in their system after experiencing stress tend to eat the most high-fat foods. Over time, this will lead to weight gain.

So how does one effectively deal with high levels of stress?

Strive to reduce the amount of stress in the first place and learn to modify your response to stress. It’s not always possible to eliminate stressors but it is possible to change your reaction to real and perceived stressful situations. Ultimately, managing stress to control the release of stress hormones will help limit fat storage.  

Here are other stress reducers:

1. Get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning to have time to plan your day and meals ahead.
2. Don’t rely on memory – make lists of appointments, things to do, groceries to buy.
3. Don’t procrastinate – do “unpleasant” tasks early in the day so the rest of the day can be anxiety-free.
4. Eliminate destructive self-talk. (“I’m too old…, I’m too fat…”)
5. Turn “needs” into “preferences”. Don’t get attached to preferences.
6. Create order out of chaos by organizing and simplifying your space.
7. Become more flexible; learn to compromise, to prioritize and to delegate responsibility to capable others.
8. Practice relaxing.
9. Practice forgiveness.

We know that exercise is an effective stress reducer. One reason for this is that the release of endorphins (hormones released during exercise) neutralizes the cortisol production and turn off the signal to the brain to eat. Eating protein dense foods can also help even out hormone levels, especially insulin, which helps reduce cravings.

The goal is to make behavior changes that can result in:

  • Recognizing the kind of stress you are experiencing
  • Finding ways to reduce your daily stress levels
  • Exploring ways to increase exercise/activity levels
  • Planning to stay on a healthy eating regimen

Remember, staying healthy by eating nutritious foods, getting adequate sleep and exercising on a regular basis are all important behaviors that help ”buffer” stress. Take a few minutes and make a list of things that you find to be relaxing and help you to de–stress in a healthy and constructive manner.

Kathleen Baskett, MD is the Medical Director of Weight Management at St. Vincent Healthcare. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and the author of “Moving Forward: The Weigh to a Healthier Weight.”