Why Stress is Making You Fat and Sick, and What to Do About It!

Ask most anyone and they will probably agree with you that stress is not good…and then they go on telling you how stressed out they are all the time. In today’s world we have to take action to stop stress from taking over our lives (and taking it in the wrong direction). First let’s look at what is really going on inside of us.

Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an involuntary response system built into your body that controls many of your organs and muscles (heart, lungs, glands, stomach, blood vessels). We don’t even know it is working most of the time except when maybe we feel it in extreme situations (increased HR). What it does, is very important. You may also recognize it as the system that controls your “Fight or Flight” response (what keeps you alive when you need to fight off your attacker or run away from a dangerous situation). The 2 main parts of the ANS are comprised of the:

  • Sympathetic Nervous System – Fight or Flight
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System – Rest and Digest

Fight or Flight

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is responsible for getting us ready for action from an oncoming “stressor” (whatever that may be). It is our innate primal protective system that was meant to be used in times of stress that would cause harm to us. When it kicks in, it does the following:

  • Releases Adrenaline/Noradrenaline
  • Accelerates Heart-rate (beat)
  • Increases Blood Pressure
  • Dilates Trachea and Bronchi (lungs)
  • Stimulates conversion of Liver Glycogen into Glucose
  • Takes blood away from the skin and other internal organs and increases it to the muscles, heart and brain
  • Inhibits digestion (food movement through the gut and limited blood flow to the stomach)
  • Inhibits saliva (enzymes needed for digestion start here)
  • Contracts rectum

Rest and Digest

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is when there is no perceived threat (or stressor) and the body can relax and get back to normal function. The PNS does the following:

  • Slows down Heart-rate (beat)
  • Lowers Blood Pressure
  • Stimulates saliva. Simulates release of bile from the liver/gallbladder (needed to break down and digest fats)
  • Relaxes the Rectum
  • Stimulates Digestion
  • Increases Blood Flow to Skin and other Internal Organs (stomach, liver, gallbladder

Cortisol Overload

Everyone has heard of the hormone called Cortisol, it’s a blood sugar hormone responding to stress and goes up when the SNS is activated (in response to adrenaline/noradrenaline). It’s a natural hormone that is actually needed to even wake up! As we wake up at 8am, our cortisol level is at it’s highest converting liver glycogen into glucose and increasing blood glucose levels to give us energy. (Hence if you ever see anyone suffering from Chronic fatigue or can’t wake up in the morning, chances are their cortisol output is very small….as sign of burnout from too much SNS activation/chronic cortisol production/adrenal fatigue).

“We live longer than our forefathers; but we suffer more from a thousand artificial anxieties and cares.  They fatigued only the muscles, we exhaust the finer strength of the nerves.” ~ Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

What we want to do for optimal health and weight loss is to manage sources of chronic or excessive cortisol as it can lead to increased insulin resistance, obesity, inflammation, muscle loss, and a host of other bad things listed above (a distinct sign of cortisol and it’s related insulin resistance role on fat gain, is seeing it more in our “problem” areas).

Cortisol has a half life of about 1hour, so it can go down if we give it a chance. Our natural rhythms should be higher cortisol in the morning, and then shifting into lower and lower amounts until we hit bedtime around 10pm where our cortisol is so low (along with blood glucose) that we are tired and need to go to sleep. Then the cycle starts over again.

Unfortunately, this cycle is messed up with alot of people and unless it is corrected and controlled, some may never see the weight loss they want because of all the other hormonal things going wrong in the body.

Make Time for Repair

Looking at everything above, you can see why we want like to have a balance between PNS and SNS activation (as that is what helps us digest food, detox the body, increase organ function, boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation, builds muscles, etc..etc).

SNS is meant for shorts bursts only, as once the fight or flight is over…then the body can slow down, shift over to the PNS response and heal and repair itself as needed. The problem is not with the short bursts of stress, but the chronic stress (ongoing for extended periods of time) in our lives…the ones that keep the SNS excessively activated all day and do not allow the PNS to take over.

Chronic SNS can lead to reduced digestion, improper organ function, malabsorption of essential vitamins and minerals (as part of the digestive process), lowered immune function, muscle breakdown and loss, sickness, increased inflammation, etc..etc. Not a road we want to go down I would assume for all of us.

Finding Balance in Your Lifestyle

“Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.” ~ Natalie Goldberg

So let’s wrap this up with a list of what the most common chronic stress factors are and things you can do to control it. Remember that it’s up to you to identify and control what comes in and out of your life. You may think you are getting away with it now, but if you keep the SNS on and limit the PNS activity, then you are most certainly heading down a road of illness and disease.

  • Do not starve yourself or stay on a low calorie diet too long. Remember when we talk about IF (intermittent fasting/feeding), we always say “get your calories in”. Intermittent periods of low/no food is one thing with proper nutrition, starving yourself is another. Long term starvation (which does not happen in a few days) will only lead to elevated cortisol, muscle loss, immune system depression, etc. IF done right will actually lower blood pressure, total cholesterol, insulin resistance and yes….even total daily cortisol (why people on IF can gain muscle and not lose it like seen in general CR diets)
  • Avoid excessive exercise. This again will only start to increase your cortisol levels. More is not better in many cases. Usually anything under 45min of pretty intense exercise is the limit, after that your muscle saving hormones (test, GH) start to decline and cortisol starts to rise. The article on why aerobics should not be your priority in weight loss covers this in more detail. If you feel a bit stressed, try just walking barefoot outside in the grass for 10 minutes…it should help “ground” you (pardon the pun).
  • Get your SLEEP. This can not be “stressed” enough (another pun, I know). If you are not going to bed early, staying up late, sleeping very little…you are just setting yourself up for disaster with lower GH levels, messed up melatonin, and higher cortisol peaks too soon (may cause restless sleep or waking up during the night, preventing that healing deep sleep).  Turn off the TV/computer early, relax, turn down the lights (light is a stimulus too), let your cortisol levels drop like it should and you will feel and look better.
  • Limit your use of stimulants. Yes, coffee and other caffeine stimulate the adrenaline/noradrenaline hormones (and cortisol response). Limit your use and certainly don’t have any later in the day, as that will not help your cortisol to lower and you get good sleep.
  • Ever notice that you will tend to want to eat more sugar when you are stressed out? This is your body’s response to the threat, it’s yelling “give me sugar for action”. Sadly this can also lead to more insulin resistance, spiking in insulin (shutting down fat “releasing” hormones), taking in excess calories and more weight gain. So if you can get rid of the stress overload, you can also get rid of the sugar cravings!
  • Stop stressing out over things you can not control or don’t matter. Whether at work, home, in the car. Practice stress reduction techniques like smiling more, ask yourself  “will this even matter in a month…or year”, deep breathing exercises, go for a walk in nature, go exercise, learn to say “No” to people, turn off the TV/computer, read something inspiring, turn off the cell phone, go do nothing for 10 minutes and observe yourself, or sit in traffic without the radio on and just focus on relaxing.
  • Simplify your life, your possessions you are worrying about, don’t over commit to people, clear your schedule and keep tasks simple. Find a purpose in what you do. Life is meant to be taken slowly (one moment at a time) and at an enjoyable pace. Slow and steady wins the race. Fast and chaotic makes you fat and sick. I suggest you also find some inspiring reading to have around and review your priorities regularly. I make time every day to do nothing, let the mind clear and then focus on what needs to be done. More “acting” (with purpose) and less “re-acting” (to distractions or unimportant external events).

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi

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