What’s your stress level right now? On a scale from 1-10. Are you resting at a comfortable 2, or are the kiddos running around and the dog just threw-up pushing you into an 8? Stress is a normal part of being alive, but did you know that consistent high levels of stress can impact your weight?
In a previous post, Dr. Wells talked about a hormone called cortisol (see article here). This hormone is produced as part of your fight or flight mechanism; more stress = more cortisol production. This is great when the stress is a lion eyeballing you as their dinner, but not so great when the stress is every single day and not only once a day but throughout the day. Interestingly enough, high levels of cortisol over a long period of time cause the body to store more fat in the abdominal area (visceral fat) which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke1,2,3. Another concern with high levels in regards to weight weight is that high levels of cortisol can cause poor sleep with can alter your full and hunger hormones (leptin and gherlin) leading you to be more prone to overeating4.
So what exactly is stress? It can be anything that your body perceives as a threat (physical or emotional).
Some common causes of stress include:
- Poor diet (too much sugar, not enough nutrients, excessive alcohol)
- Infections or Chronic Sickness
- Over exercising or under exercising
- Toxicity (including heavy metals, excess hormones)
- Emotional stress (including difficulty with a family member or a demanding job)
High levels of stress can cause emotional overeating as well as overconsumption of too much fat, too much salt, or too much sugar. Not surprising, people with high levels of stress are also less likely to consume adequate fruits and veggies (who else wants a nice dose of comfort food when you’re really stressed out??)5.
So, what can we do to help counteract the constant barrage of stress? Quit your job? Lock yourself in your bathroom and pretend that your kiddos aren’t playing gladiator on the sofa? Go live in a yurt in the middle of nowhere away from everyone that needs you? Probably not, but there is some research that incorporating certain types of relaxation techniques into your routine can help decrease your stress levels and help you reach your weight loss goals.
What does the research say?
One study looked at obese women. Over 8 weeks of stress management, the group of women had a significant increase in weight loss over the control group (almost 10 lbs more) and were more likely to stick with their healthy eating habits6. Other studies looked at stress-reduction for obese children. One study found that guided imagery reduced salivary cortisol, and the effect was more profound the more often they did the program (see figure 1). This study found that participating in stress reduction techniques at least 3 times per week was very effective at reducing cortisol7. Another study for children found that over 8 weeks stress reduction techniques (including progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, guided imagery, and cognitive restructuring) significantly reduced BMI by 1.188. To put that into perspective, an average 11 year old boy is 4’7”. If he weighed 150lbs (BMI 34.9), this stress reduction protocol could help him to loose 6lbs (just by breathing!). A study looking at an 8 week stress reduction program for adults found similar results. Xenaki et al, found 8 weeks of a stress reduction program (diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided visualization) significantly reduced BMI by 3.1 as well as increased intake of fruits and veggies while decreasing high carbohydrate foods9. Take an adult male (6’, 250lbs). By incorporating the stress reduction, this would result in a 23lb weight loss. Again, this could go back to the reduction of cortisol which also helps to help decrease cravings for high carbohydrate foods and improve dietary control.
Diaphragmatic breathing (or deep breathing) is one of my favorite ways to encourage stress reduction. There are a few types of diaphragmatic breathing that I really like including box breathing, alternative nostril breathing, and full yogic breath. There are many great videos out there that show how to do these breaths, but the goal is to just do something consistently. All of these studies were over several weeks to months with several breathing practices each week. Take a few minutes every day to slow down and take some deep breaths. If you’re in a stressful situation and find yourself with shallow, rapid breathing- use that time to refocus your breath.
Keep in mind, breathwork isn’t going to prevent you from gaining weight if you eat a dozen donuts a day, but it might help you to reduce your cortisol and stick to your healthy food choices.
Be sure to check out our Facebook later this week, where I demonstrate some of my favorite breathing techniques! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below!