Stress is commonly seen as a cause of heart disease,high blood pressure and diabetes,but not often linked to obesity and weight gain. Stress alters eating habits and makes people overeat and consume undesirable comfort foods rich in carbohydrates,sugars and fat. Stress affects our hormones in several serious ways,setting the stage for easy weight gain and associated complications.
Stress,both chronic and acute,leads to excessive production of a hormone called cortisol. Excessive cortisol (hyper-cortisolemia) can induce resistance to several hormones including insulin,thyroid,estrogen, progesterone,testosterone,and even cortisol. Therefore,stress can adversely affect several vital body processes.
Insulin resistance means the body needs more insulin to keep blood sugar levels under control. It leads to the development of belly fat (visceral fat). High insulin (hyperinsulinemia) leads to increase in waist size,abdominal girth and weight gain. Visceral fat is associated with several abnormalities such as abnormal cholesterol levels,glucose intolerance,high uric acid,fatty liver,increased inflammation and clotting tendency of blood,abdominal obesity,high blood pressure,diabetes mellitus and heart disease. These abnormalities are referred to as metabolic syndrome. A 2011 study in Japan revealed a positive association of psychosocial stress in the development of metabolic syndrome,manifested by central obesity and later leading to diabetes and heart disease. Excess cortisol also disrupts the balance of appetite controlling hormones including leptin leading to increased food intake and leptin resistant obesity.
Too much cortisol in the body may produce hypothyroid like symptoms even with normal thyroid hormone levels. It creates a condition of thyroid resistance,meaning that thyroid hormone levels can be normal,but tissues fail to respond as efficiently to the thyroid signal. This is why stress disrupts a persons well-being.
The specific stressors too have been identified. These include social stress,subordination in society and family,financial strain,job insecurity,low perceived control at work,stressful life events,poor social networks,depression and low self-esteem. Both human and animal studies indicate that these are associated with increased girth and central obesity.
A 2006 study in UK which sampled about 10,000 employees stated that individuals with chronic work stress have more than double the risk of metabolic syndrome associated with abdominal obesity than those without it. These people had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol .
Some other common manifestations are menstrual changes,bloating,water retention,digestive complaints,hypothyroid like symptoms,frequent infections,sleep changes,fatigue,depression,mood swings and lowered libido.
The situation may worsen around mid-life and menopause. So do not let stress get the better of you. Adopt effective coping mechanisms. Those going through a difficult phase need to be extra watchful about what they eat and how much they exercise.
Tips to beat stress
* Follow stress management techniques like yoga,meditation,prayer,hypnosis,neuro-feedback and bio-feedback
* Exercise regularly
* Eat healthy
* Avoid overeating when fatigued or under stress
* Be optimistic
* Practice time management
* Avoid excessive caffeine,alcohol or tobacco
* Try and get six to eight hours of sleep
* Spend at-least one hour everyday with family
* Try to go on a holiday every 3 months with family
* Listening to relaxing music is therapeutic and calming
Consider keeping a pet. Stroking an animal has been found to help relax
* Learn to recognise your own threshold for stress and do not push yourself beyond it
Ishi Khosla is a former senior nutritionist at Escorts. She heads the Centre of Dietary Counselling and also runs a health food store. She feels that for complete well-being,one should integrate physical,mental and spiritual health. According to her: To be healthy should be the ultimate goal for all.