For most of us, stress is a fact of life. Sadly, new research reveals it's also a fact of fat. You may hold topnotch health credentials—the diet of a saint and biceps strong enough to arm-wrestle Lisa Curry—but with chronic stress on your plate, you'll find it hard to lose weight. Worse still, stress can add kilos. Here's why: your body responds to stress—psychological or physical—in the same way.
Whether you're facing a deadline or a deadly lion, the amygdala, the fear-processing part of your brain, signals a 'look out!' message to the pituitary and adrenal glands. These respond by releasing a flood of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, explains Jennifer Ackerman, author of Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body ($32.95; Scribe). Your heart rate speeds up, supplying your muscles with extra blood. Next, your body's fat and energy stores release extra glucose and fatty acids to supply more fuel. This can make you hungry ... very hungry.
"If you have high cortisol levels, you tend to go for sweet or salty foods that provide a quick source of energy and glucose," says accredited practising dietitian Lisa Renn from Mind Food Dietetics in Melbourne. Snacks such as these stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension—and the soothing effect that occurs when you sink your teeth into that cinnamon-sprinkled custard tart becomes addictive.
With your adrenal glands pumping out cortisol, production of the muscle-building hormone testosterone slows. "Over time, this drop causes a decrease in your muscle mass, so you burn fewer kilojoules," explains Dr Shawn Talbott (PhD), author of The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat And Ruins Your Health—And What You Can Do About It ($35; Hunter House). According to some research, there's even a link between raised cortisol and increased abdominal fat storage, adds Renn.
Taking these seven steps to beat stress will help you control your cortisol levels, manage your weight and improve your overall health—all at the same time.
1. Sidestep the Coffee Cart
Next time you're under duress, choose decaf. When you combine stress with caffeine, it raises cortisol levels more than stress alone does. In one study by The University of Oklahoma in the US, people who consumed the equivalent of 21/2 to 3 cups of coffee while under mild stress boosted their cortisol by about 25 per cent—and kept it up for three hours. When subjects took 600 mg of caffeine (the equivalent of six cups of coffee) throughout the day, the hormone went up by 30 per cent and stayed high all day long. You'll experience these effects even if your body is accustomed to a lot of lattes. And because high cortisol levels can contribute to 'stress eating', you might want to consider ditching caffeine altogether.
2. Go Slowly at Meals
Under stress, we tend to scoff down food—even healthy food. In fact, research has linked this behaviour to bigger portions and more belly fat. But Renn suggests that slowing down gives your brain time to catch up with your belly: "People tend to eat more quickly when they're stressed, and there's a response delay of about 20 minutes before your brain realises your tummy is full. Therefore, if you're eating faster, you're more likely to overeat."
3. Stop Strict Dieting
It's ironic, but research shows that constant dieting can make cortisol levels rise by as much as 18 per cent. Depriving the body of food is actually a stressor, creating a spike in cortisol levels. What's more, dieting makes your blood sugar go haywire—first rising, then plummeting. You get cranky and (you guessed it) ravenous.
When your brain is deprived of sugar—its main fuel—self-control takes a nosedive, and your willpower doesn't stand a chance. The only way around this is to stop rigid dieting. To stabilise your blood-sugar levels, aim for three healthy meals a day with two snacks evenly spaced in between them, says accredited practising dietitian Julie Gilbert. This keeps hunger pangs at bay and eases the stress they cause, thereby clearing the path for you to drop extra kilos and eliminate emergency trips to lolly lane!
4. Redirect Your Cravings
If each wave of stress has you gulping a can of Fanta—if you constantly give in to a particular craving—you create a 'stress habit'. "You'll reach for the same food every time you're under pressure," says Renn. Instead, craft a 'stress plan': devise a strategy—whether it's calling a friend or listening to some mood-boosting music—for addressing your next hair-pulling episode. Get ready for crunch time by putting your friend's phone number on speed dial or loading a soothing Black Sabbath album into your CD player.
5. Drop and Do 10
That's right, power out some push-ups. "Moving your muscles is an effective instant stress reliever. It actually fools your body into thinking you're escaping the source of your stress," says Talbott. "Exercise makes your blood circulate more quickly, transporting the cortisol to your kidneys and flushing it out of your system." It also eases anxiety by releasing feel-good compounds called endorphins, says Prevention's fitness and nutrition expert Kylie Ball, associate professor from Victoria's Deakin University.
But if push-ups are impractical, just flexing your hands or calf muscles will help move cortisol along, says Talbott. Even taking a stroll during your lunchbreak is beneficial. In one study, he found that just 18 minutes of walking, three times a week, can quickly lower cortisol levels by 15 per cent.
6. Sleep It Off
The most effective stress-reduction strategy of all: get enough shut-eye. "Your body perceives sleep deprivation as a major stressor," says Talbott. An American study by The University of Chicago found that getting an average of only 6 hours of sleep each night can increase cortisol, appetite and weight gain. Emily Bradley, Prevention's natural-medicine expert, recommends you get at least seven to nine hours per night. Other research shows that lack of sleep also raises levels of ghrelin, a hunger-boosting hormone. In one study, appetite—particularly for sweet and salty foods—increased by 23 per cent in people who lacked sleep. The good news: a few nights of solid sleep can bring all this back into balance, and getting consistent rest helps maintain the equilibrium. As Talbott says, "You'll eat less, and you'll feel better, too."
7. Power Up Breakfast
Deficiencies in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium can stress your body, leading to increased cortisol levels and food cravings, says Talbott. But you can fight back by eating a breakfast that's high in these nutrients. He suggests some OJ, a grapefruit or a large handful of strawberries to supply vitamin C; a small tub of low-fat yoghurt, which contains calcium and magnesium; and a wholegrain bagel or toast with a bit of peanut butter. Wholegrains are bursting with B vitamins, and peanut butter contains fatty acids that can decrease the production of stress hormones.