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Widening Waistline? Befuddled Brain? It could be Chronic Stress.

Some of us think we have everything under control and others of us feel like we’re about to snap. We all respond to stressors differently. We may know we stress eat or perhaps we think we don’t eat ‘that much’ and even exercise yet we keep putting on weight. The problem for both may still be stress.

The problem of a widening waistline is so common that we even have metaphors to describe this effect commonly associated with overeating: ‘spare tire’, ‘muffin top’ or more affectionately ‘love handles’. 

Also, the accepted middle age spread could actually be the result of a life of stress not just failing to reduce our calorie intake to match our lowering metabolism as we age.

In a recent survey carried out by Forth, a blood testing kit supplier, 85% of UK adults reported feeling stressed regularly and 54% and worried about the impact of stress on their health so it could be argued this is an endemic problem in society. 

The number of work days taken off due to stress reported by the government Health & Safety executive last year could be even higher than the 15.4 million days estimated due to depression and anxiety as stress also has physical impacts and could therefore be responsible for some of the other 6.6 million days we took off.

Stress is associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, not just mental ill-health. Also chronic stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning which has productivity impacts.

Scientists are still researching the effects of chronic stress as the picture is very complex because it appears to affect organ and system functions at multiple levels.

How do we get trapped in the stress cycle?

When we are stressed, as part of our fight or flight response our body releases the hormone cortisol as well as adrenalin that can kill our appetite. Once the situation has been dealt with, we go back into balance.

Stress can be great as it gives us motivation and drive to tackle those tough tasks and deadlines, but too much of it for too long prevents us from going back into balance and can cause health problems because the adrenalin drops off yet the cortisol doesn’t.

Cortisol changes the way that our body metabolises glucose and how much energy our muscles burn. Constant release of cortisol may increase our risk of developing insulin resistance, raise our blood sugar, alter our appetite, reduce our ability to burn fat and increase the rate at which we store fat.

Although short-term stress reduces hunger, long-term or chronic stress can increase hunger as it results in higher insulin levels which means blood sugar levels drop causing cravings for sugary and fatty foods. So instead of the healthy foods we would usually eat, we crave comfort foods, just as if we’re sleep deprived.

In our natural rhythm, cortisol levels are high in our body in the morning and should gradually lower during the day ready to sleep. If we are stressed this natural pattern is thwarted and is further exacerbated by the ensuing loss of sleep which causes raised cortisol levels of a morning. And to add to that, stress can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress.

So we end up in a downward spiral.

As we notice our growing waistline, we respond with a strict diet which also causes stress – worrying about the number of calories and what to eat – and dieting for more than three weeks puts us at risk of creating metabolic damage which increases cortisol which may further reduce our metabolism.

In desperation, we add rigorous exercise to our daily routine. But if we do a strenuous work out every day for an extended time, we may cause the over release of cortisol and our belly will stubbornly refuse to disappear.
And the more stress we are under, and the longer we are under that stress, the more severe the symptoms are likely to be:

  • Permanent low energy
  • Needing caffeine and carbs to keep going
  • Energy crash in mid afternoon
  • Second wind in the evening
  • Difficulty getting up in the morning 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Decreased tolerance to stressful situations
  • Mood changes and feeling depressed or anxious
  • Racing mind 
  • Feeling burned out

And then we start to give up and crash on the sofa, grab a glass of wine and eat comfort foods in the evening. It’s insidious.

Yet if we alleviate the stress in more productive ways, we will start to increase productivity, reduce our waistline and in the long-run improve our life expectancy. Organisations have an important role to play in reducing this problem and changing culture, yet there are some things we can do to help ourselves through a mindset shift and healthy routines.

Tips to alleviate stress

  1. Address the source of the stress. This may be easier said than done in many cases but the problem cannot be resolved without this. Stress can be divided into different categories and can even be a result of several sources.
  • Physical – over-exercising, not sleeping, increased demands at work, long hours
  • Social – Peer pressure, relationship breakdown, bullying, social media/phones
  • Emotional – emotionally draining work, PTSD, worry about deadlines or performance, financial difficulties, grief
  • Environmental – lack of fresh air, noise, EMFs
  • Health-related – chronic conditions, hormones, poor nutrition, depression
  1. Do not restrict calorie intake for longer than 21 days. Stop and eat sensibly to stabilise the weight loss and work out how to eat at that new weight. Choose foods that provide the body with fuel which will aid weight loss by giving energy.
  2. Exercise to relieve the stress but ensure the routine leaves you feeling energised rather than tired. Allow for recovery time in between sessions. Low intensity exercise such a yoga and pilates are a good option.
  3. Go for a walk to change your environment, reduce feelings of stress and increase energy levels. Even 10 minutes away from the source of stress can improve resiliency to difficult situations. 
  4. Immediately you notice you are stressed, stop what you are doing, acknowledge the feeling, and breathe. Breathe out for longer than you breathe in and push your breathing down to your belly. This is the idea of ‘rest and digest’, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’. 
  5. Reframe the situation – look for the opportunity, look for what you can change, put yourself outside of your situation and advise yourself, re-prioritise.
  6. Practise a visualisation exercise, such as putting yourself in a bubble of your favourite colour or a calming colour, in your favourite calming place, or imagine the person causing the stress as a cartoon character, or imagine the situation solved. 
  7. Add a meditation and affirmation to your daily routine, for example a mantra ‘there is always time’ to shift the idea that you’re time poor.
  8. Do something creative or listen to your favourite music. 
  9. Create a wind-down routine for the evening to ensure a good night’s sleep, for example write to-do list to get it down on paper and out of your head, say or write what you are thankful for to rewire your brain to positives, put away the phone an hour before bed, take a warm bath. 
  10. Surround yourself with positive people and laughter. Try a laughter yoga class. 
  11. Drink water.
  12. Eat nutrient dense foods: leafy vegetables, fatty fish, oatmeal, probiotic yoghurt, white meat, blueberries, 85% chocolate, avocado, seeds and nuts.
  13. Reduce your caffeine intake. Or instead, drink green tea and matcha as they have l-theamine to offset the caffeine which prevents the ‘jitters’.
  14. See your GP if symptoms persist and to have your cortisol levels tested as well as support to reduce it in the longer-term. 
  15. Take an adaptogenic herb supplement like Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, or Rhodiola.
  16. Use essential oils:

Basil – To combat fatigue, low energy

Bergamot – Promotes relaxation and calm in your endocrine system. Slowly breathe the vapours to relax and calm the mind and body when a food craving comes, especially if you are under emotional stress.

Clary Sage – After a long day, treat yourself to a soothing bath with Clary Sage and Lavender. When you know it’s going to be a stressful day, put a drop on the bottoms of your feet or to your pulse points to promote feelings of balance and relaxation.

Grapefruit – Encourages a positive relationship with one’s body to counteract obsession with food or dieting. 

Lavender – Diffuse to reduce stress improve sleep and combat teeth grinding. Add a few drops to a bath with epsom salts.

Tangerine – Invites creativity to combat feeling overworked, overburdened and overly responsible. 

Vetiver – Provides a centring effect if you are feeling split between priorities.

Ylang Ylang – Gets rid of bottled up emotions.

Comforting blend (Console) – Soothes emotional pain after periods of extreme stress or trauma.

Joyful blend (Elevation) – Reduces emotional stress, teaches worry and fear aren’t productive.

Massage blend (Aromatouch) – Assists in calming, relaxing and releasing physical tension. 

Reassuring blend (Peace) – Created to assist inner peace through connection.

Renewing blend (Forgive) – To reduce overwhelm that is creating cynicism and negativity.

Restful blend (Serenity) – Reduces emotional overload, anxiousness and disconnection to create a feeling of calm and relaxation.

Tension blend (PastTense) – Relieves headaches caused by stress.

Message me if you would like support to develop a wellbeing plan to manage your stress or develop a strategy to eradicate your stress. It doesn’t have to be like this.

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