Stress, Anxiety and Weight Gain – What you may not know

Ever wondered why you’re not able to lose weight even though you’re trying everything? Could it be down to; metabolism, aging, thyroid issues or simply eating the wrong foods for your body? OR…. could it be an area that is often overlooked – the impact that stress and anxiety have not only on us putting on weight, but also on us not being able to lose it!

Why losing weight is a delicate balance

We so often think that maintaining a good weight should be easy. The formula goes something like this:

Energy (food) in     Serves the body’s every need   Excesses eliminated = Perfect Weight Balance

But this isn’t always the case.

Nothing in the body works in isolation. Take our metabolism. It’s responsible for our energy levels and effectively managing and repackaging all of the chemicals our body needs. But, it’s only truly effective when working in tandem with our digestive and hormonal systems, the autonomic nervous system, muscle tissue and even the minute functions within our cells. All of these have to be functioning properly for us to be able to digest, benefit from, and eliminate food effectively.

But there’s more….. say we take just one of these elements; the autonomic nervous system for instance. This controls both the ‘fight and flight’ (sympathetic nervous system) and the ‘rest and digest’ (parasympathetic nervous system). When one of these is in operation, the other one is dormant. So when we’re stressed or anxious, our bodies are in effect geared towards action, not digestion.

Take away – In order to digest and absorb food properly our bodies have to be in a state of rest and digest.

How stress interferes with digestion

We have an independent nervous system within our digestive track which is known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS is stimulated by sensitivities within the gut. But it also works with, and can be affected by our central nervous system. So it’s highly sensitive and can be reactive to all of the stimuli that we’re constantly taking in.

The ENS also controls peristalsis, which is like an electric ripple or wave which instructs our digestive muscle tissue to move food though our system. But when we’re stressed peristalsis can be significantly affected, either by it speeding up or slowing it down. Stress can also take blood away from the digestive system. In both of these cases instead of our food being digested, we can just end up with spasms, cramping, bloating and pain.

Take away – We have a sensitive nervous system within the gut. When we’re stressed this can interfere with our ability to digest food properly.

5 ways that stress and anxiety can contribute to weight gain

A sluggish pancreas – Remember in the blood sugar balance article Click here , that when cortisol is released in response to stress, glucose is also released, and this activates insulin. But this can create a problem whereby the pancreas is overused and not processing glucose effectively. Instead the excess glucose is repackaged and stored as fat.

Impulse to overeat – Stress can cause abdominal pain when the ENS is overstimulated. This can in turn reduce the desire to eat and lead to weight loss. However, in a 2003 study by Dallman and colleagues1 they found that the hormones released in the first stages of the stress response, known as glucocorticoids were shown to stimulate compulsive and pleasure seeking behaviour. In affect this created an impulse to overeat.

Cravings – Our body’s most basic requirements are for nutrients which supply high contents of glucose and fat. How that’s packaged (cakes, pizza, pies or avocados, nuts and leafy vegetables) is not an intellectual decision for our body. In a stressed state we’ll just crave more of these types of food. It’s really only us, who can decide, which types of glucose and fats are most beneficial for us.

Not feeling full – Leptin is a hormone involved in regulating how full we feel. But leptin is also involved in regulating cortisol levels. The problem is that in the case of chronic stress, leptin levels can potentially become deactivated to such a state, that they lose their ability to signal accurately.

Inflammation – Inflammation is actually one of the body’s primary protective mechanisms against injury and disease. But stress can cause the gut to be irritated. This can then lead to inflammation around the damaged site; but also a widening in what should otherwise be tight gut tissue. When this happens, it potentially allows larger undigested food particles to enter the blood stream. The particle will then be attacked by the immune system. This then creates greater levels of inflammation as often seen in auto-immune conditions.

7 simple steps to help you

Reduce stress – As obvious as that sounds, it’s a must. If we’re not able to relax, then the chemicals that are released when we’re stressed just continue to be circulated. This means that all the efforts we’re make through eating well and exercise are just negated.

Keep a food diary – This is one of the most beneficial ways of monitoring how your diet and mood are impacting your health. It’s best to monitor meals over the week and weekend, but even doing 2 week days and one weekend day can be beneficial.

Ensure your gut’s healthy – There may be many indications that you have problems with your digestive system. These can range from bloating, gas, stomach cramps to recognising undigested food in your stools. A great thing to start doing is to get use to what your stools look like and referring to the Bristol Stool Chart Click here to check whether your stools are normal (4 and 5).

Eat slowly and chew your food – Again this sounds obvious but when we’re in a rush we can grab something and swallow it down without it hardly touching the sides. Remember that in order for food to be digested, we have to be in the parasympathetic, calm, rest and digest state. Although food will be broken down throughout the digestive tract, it’s much harder on our bodies to break down larger particles. Being in a calm state will also mean that we are able to feel when we’re full.

Eat anti-inflammatory foods and reduce foods that cause inflammation – In essence this means keeping the diet simple. The foods that are shown to be the most inflammatory and irritate the gut are sugars and grains. Sugar can not only lower our immunity but it also provides a strong source for harmful bacteria to feed on. But, foods such as garlic and ginger, vegetables – salad leaves, celery, cucumber, fennel, parsley, the cruciferous family (broccoli, cabbage, kale and watercress) can be hugely helpful in reducing inflammation. Almost all contain good levels of vitamin C, which is essential for tissue healing and maintenance of the integrity of cell walls.

Keep up the fibre – Fibre is essential for bulking up food and increasing our levels of satiety. It is also important for removing toxins, harmful bacterial and waste from the body. But it’s important to eat fibre from fruit, vegetables and beans and not rely on grains.

Fluids, fluids, fluids – It’s just so important to keep the gut hydrated. As important as it is to eat fibre, fibre cannot be digested without plenty of fluid.

  1. Dallman, M., Pecoraro, N., Akana, S., La Fleur, S., Gomez, F., Houshyar, H., Bell, M., Bhatnagar, S., Laugero and Manalo, S. (2003) Chronic Stress and Obesity: A new view of “comfort food”. PNAS, Vol 100, no: 20. Available at: 11696.full.pdf

If you want to delve in deeper then join me and a wonderful support community on my 5 week ‘Healthy Happy Weight’ course which starts in January. See more details here: Workshops and talks.

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