When Stress Is Hard To Stomach: How It Makes You Fat
The human body is a marvellous organism, and one of the many things that hold me in wonder is its response to stress. A whole chain reaction, commonly known as the ‘fight-or-flight-response’, is triggered when danger is perceived. There is an issue here though, in that your body does not discriminate between physical threat, and emotional stress: your biochemical response is exactly the same.
The hormones released in the fight-or-flight-response give you almost superhuman powers – think about the stories of otherwise frail people who find a massive physical strength in a crisis, such as the ability to lift a car from an injured child. These are powerful chemicals indeed! The fight-or-flight-response is absolutely vital – it keeps you alive! When that out-of-control bus is hurtling towards you, who you gonna call? That’s right, your fight-or-flight hormones! An acute stress response is essential to your survival.
Problems really begin to arise, however, when you are subjected to long-term stress. Of course, this is usually the mental-emotional type, brought on by personal, work-related or lifestyle issues. The fight-or-flight response was never intended to last for more than as few seconds, so when stress becomes long-term or chronic your body moves into something called “adaptive stress”. The hormones associated with chronic stress play havoc with your body chemistry. You may find it hard to lose weight. You may gain weight.
In terms of body fat, the key player you need to know about is one of the stress hormones, cortisol.
Cortisol has a particular job to do: it conserves your resources, just in case you find yourself in a situation in which more resources cannot be found. One of the things the human body needs for survival is food. Thus, cortisol affects your metabolism of food, encouraging your body to store fat – which at the end of the day is your energy larder!
Body fat is a storehouse for large quantities of calories – remember dietary fats provide more than twice the amount of calories per. gram than carbohydrates. Burning fat can keep you going for long periods of time. Take the example of a candle – traditionally made from fat. Burning a piece of wick alone takes no time at all, but immersing the same wick in fat, that is to make a candle, means it can burn for hours!
While life events might cause you unavoidable stress at times, there are some key habits you can form to mitigate some of the effects of your cortisol.
Digestion is a beautiful, alchemical, almost magical process in which your body is able to draw strength and resources from your environment. It is also one of the hardest jobs your body has to perform for you. It takes a lot of effort to breakdown, digest and absorb your food. This is why you can become very sleepy after a very heavy meal! So forget comfort foods – eating regular small portions of easily digestible food can help.
Eating in a hurry or on-the-go should be avoided. Your body can’t be effective in the task of digesting your food whilst you rush around or perform other jobs. Rather, this may also engender a stress response. Again, with the help of cortisol, you are unlikely to process food properly, and instead find it more likely to be laid down as body fat.
I urge you to make a pledge to really honour the alchemy of food, and begin by creating a proper environment to help your body by eating in a calm and relaxed manner and state. This has been recognised in Chinese culture for millennia. One of the sayings attributed to the Buddha is “when you eat, just eat.”
In times of stress many will reward themselves with unhealthy food – starchy, sugary, greasy meals and snacks; maybe fast food or highly processed ready meals. Some may even consider they are indulging in “treats”. Really they are achieving quite the opposite – the effects on the body are hardly consistent with being treated! So the next time you find yourself experiencing stress be armed with the knowledge of how to really treat your body well. Follow the advice above to protect yourself from biochemical chaos and don’t let stress make you fat.