It can thin your hair, wrinkle and pimple your skin—and now stress has found another way to sabotage your looks and health. It can make you fat. It doesn’t just affect women who are inactive and don’t watch what they eat, either. If you’re a thin woman with a thick waist, stress may be the culprit.
So what’s the story?
Research into the stress-fat connection is piling up, and it seems this villain has a few tactics up its sleeve.
The latest study, out in the Journal of Nature Medicine in July from researchers in Sydney, Slovakia and the US, has figured out how a specific molecule that your body releases when it’s stressed can actually cause fat cells to grow, both in size and number.
In that study, stressed and unstressed mice were fed normal diets and high fat/high sugar diets. None of the mice on normal diets became obese, but the stressed mice on high calorie diets gained twice as much fat as unstressed mice on the same diet.
Other studies have linked stress with the ‘apple shape’—which along with being unsightly, puts you at higher risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Dr Elissa Epel is a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco who has been studying the links between stress and fat for more than a decade. She says the “visceral fat” around your waist has more receptors for the stress hormone cortisol than other types of fat—cortisol leads to fat storage, so the higher amounts your body produces when you’re stressed means more fat gets stored around your middle.
Epel’s earlier research has also shown that lean women with high waist to hip ratios—in others words lean, apple-shaped women who have thick waists—are more vulnerable to stress than their also lean, but thin-waisted counterparts.
When you’re stressed you’re also more prone to ‘emotional eating’ – where you stuff yourself with comfort foods in the hopes of feeling better even though you’re not actually hungry. Last year a study by researchers at Georgetown and The University of Michigan found that one of the chemicals you produce when you’re stressed triggers the same brain mechanism that goes wrong in drug addiction, causing you to excessively crave pleasurable things. The study found that rats with a certain stress chemical craved three times as much comfort food as rats without it. Essentially it makes you more likely to give in to temptations, says Professor Kent Berridge, one of the study’s authors.
“It creates a special window of vulnerability to temptation," Berridge says. "This can trap individuals into chasing incentives they could normally resist.”
And along with creating a more powerful urge to overeat, the frantic pace stress can create often leads people to make less wise choices regarding diet and exercise, says Paul Timms, CEO of the Australian Institute of Personal Trainers, and the 2007 Queensland Personal Trainer of the year.
“When you’re stressed you’re generally quite busy, and many people become too busy to exercise. I often see people who say they don’t need to exercise because they’re ‘on the go all the time.’ But really they’re not necessarily running around,” Timms says.
Take a mother of a toddler who says she’s constantly chasing after her child—but she’s more likely to be shuffling him around in a car or sitting on a floor playing with toys than to literally be running after him, he says.
“There’s a brain to foot gap. Almost everybody over-estimates how much activity they’re getting. And likewise, there’s a brain to mouth gap where we underestimate how much food we’re eating,” Timms says.
Clare, a 32-year-old community development worker who works with refugee children has felt the weighty effects of stress first hand.
“I seem to be in a continuous state of stress, but particularly in the last year it has been the most stressed I have ever been in my life,” she says.
Along with her emotionally demanding job, Clare was dealing with a fallout with her sister, the stress of moving house, office politics, and the prospect of losing her job altogether as the contract for the program she was running was at risk of not being renewed. On top of all that she was studying a Masters degree in social development, and volunteering three to four nights a week, plus Saturdays, again working with refugees and asylum seekers.
Time for herself? There wasn’t any.
In a little over a year Clare put on 12 kilos, nearly all of it around her stomach. Along with the biological affects of stress, there were lots of compounding factors.
“I had terrible sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about what was worrying me. All night, all night, all night I would think about it,” she says. “I didn’t do any exercise at all and I was comfort eating as well.”
Experts say her response is typical, as stress tends to hamper decision making skills.
“People often respond to short term demands with short term solutions, for example they might grab something quick and easy for dinner because they are time pressured, but often what is quick and easy isn’t healthy,” says Dr Leah Brennan a psychologist and research fellow at RMIT who specializes in overweight and obesity management.
Instead, Brennan and Timms say the key is to stop what you’re doing, take a break and evaluate what you’re doing, how you’re spending your time and what your priorities are.
“Often people who are stressed operate a bit like a mouse in a wheel, so we try to get them to stop and look at the week ahead and prioritise,” Brennan says. “What things could be dropped from your week or rescheduled?”
Timms suggests creating a list of things that matter most to you in life, and then rating how they’re going on a scale of 1 to 10—then create a plan with strategies to improve the areas that aren’t at the level you’d like them to be.
It’s also essential to make time to take care of yourself when things get tough.
“Many of the things that that we recommend to help reduce stress are also the same things we recommend for weight loss,” Brennan says.
For example get a good night’s sleep—it will help you keep things in better perspective, and being tired and fatigued is linked to weight gain and obesity as well. Take time out to be active—along with burning calories it also burns up the stress hormone cortisol. And take time to do something for yourself, even if it’s just a few minutes for a cup of tea.
“It just requires more forward planning, and you need to be realistic about what you can fit into your life,” she says.
It might even mean you have to cut a few things out.
Clare says to get control over her life again she’s stopped working overtime, dropped down to just one class for her post grad degree, and cut her volunteer work out. She’s also started going to the gym again on a daily basis. The weight is gradually coming off and Clare says she’s feeling “200 per cent better” to boot.
Of course it’s not always a simple transition.
For people working through stressful life situations that are beyond their immediate control or are depressed or anxious, Brennan ways they should come to terms with those issues before trying to lose weight.
“If you’re depressed or anxious it’s probably not the best time to try to lose weight because you don’t have as much capacity to deal with things in a really stressful time. It’s like you’re swimming against the current and you’re adding one more stress to deal with.”
Do what you can to stay healthy, she says, but get extra support and assistance to get on top of the other issues first.”
If you really want to wipe out stress fat, the most important think to do, however, is to minimise stress in the first place, she and Timms say.
Relaxation exercises are another way to help with that—whether you try deep breathing, meditation, imagery, progressive muscle relaxation or exercises such as pilates or yoga—the trick is to find what works for you and start using it BEFORE you find yourself in a stressful situation, Brennan says.
“It requires practice, so you need to start using the relaxation techniques in your normal life when things are going well so that when you do get stressed you already have the skills in place,” she says. “Relaxation does two things. It brings your baseline level of stress down so you don’t get as stressed to begin with, and also when you are in a moment of stress it can help you control it and calm down.”
Feeling stressed? Eating right will help cut stress-fat damage
- Fill up on nourishing meals at regular times each day, and whatever you do, don’t skip meals. The effects of emotional eating tend to be much worse when you’re hungry in the first place. If you’ve eating regularly you might find a small block of chocolate is enough to satisfy your cravings, but if your body is starved you are much less likely to have that much control.
- Eat low GI carbohydrate rich foods such as grainy bread or porridge. These sorts of breads and cereals provide longer lasting energy and are richer in B group vitamins that release energy to the central nervous system which manages your stress levels.
- Go easy on caffeine; more than two or three cups a day will raise your heart rate and make you even more anxious.
- Have strategies to help you relax that don’t involve food. You could burn relaxing oils, take a nice bath, or have some favorite music ready to chill to, for example.
- Have a healthy alternative such as dried fruit and nut mix on hand so you can still get the sugar hit you’re craving without loading up on empty calories.
- Stay away from alcohol; it’s a depressant so it will make you feel even worse
Source: Aloysa Hourigan, senior nutritionist at Nutrition Australia
for Madison magazine, 2007