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cortisol

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Why You Gain Weight When You're Stressed


Most women I know struggle with wanting to lose body fat in one area or another, and many can’t figure out why, despite all their best efforts, this isn’t happening. Now, aside from the topic of self-love and acceptance (two concepts I find paramount to your overall health and wellness), it’s not a crime to want a firmer midsection or to tone up your legs. A healthy, vital and active body is able to carry us places we wish to travel and move in exciting, fun ways that we might not be able to otherwise. Plus, who doesn’t love the feeling of confidence you get when your body is living out in it’s perfect potential? I know I notice when my body feels heavy and sluggish versus when it feels light and energetic. However, notice I said YOUR perfect potential.

 

What we’ll be discussing today is not how to land someone else’s body or uncover six pack abs, but instead how your body’s perfect set point will be revealed once you undo the harmful effects of stress and let your unique shape and size shine through. When I cut out my personal food intolerances, began reducing inflammation and lowered my cortisol, I ended up losing 10 pounds without any changes in exercise or restrictive dieting -  and I’ve seen this happen time and time again with my clients, as they too lean into stress reducing practices and new ways of intuitive, healthful eating.

 

So, you’re probably wondering how one accomplishes such a thing? Well, we’ll get there in a minute, but first I want to take you through the why of how stress causes you to put on extra fat (generally in the belly and hip region for us gals) and then we’ll talk about ways you can reverse this nasty cycle.

 

If you’ve been here long, you’ve probably heard me throw around the term Cortisol quite a bit. However, if you’re new, cortisol is referred to as our stress hormone and is responsible for helping us get through an event that requires us to “flee or fight.” In cases of acute stress, such as a car accident or other emergency, this hormone can be life saving. When our brain registers a stressor, it calls upon our adrenals to release cortisol. Cortisol then circulates throughout the body, breaking down amino acids (mostly from our muscles), and turning them into glucose so we have plenty of energy to either run away quickly or fight bravely. This hormone, combined with adrenaline and dopamine, are responsible for the effects of stress like increased blood pressure and heart rate, hyper-arousal and alertness to danger, shakiness or jitters and dilated pupils. All the necessary ingredients for us to evolutionarily deal with being chased by a tiger or fighting off a neighboring tribe.

 

In these short-lived, acute scenarios, this cascade, known as the the stress response, is not only necessary, but welcomed by the body and brain.

 

However, when we begin to abuse this chain of command by entering into the chronic stress zone, we begin to see problems arise.

 

The effects of cortisol and adrenaline take quite a while to leave the body, meaning that when you’re under chronic stress (think daily traffic, stressful job you hate, negative thoughts all day long, fights with your spouse, crazy kids running around the house while you’re trying to work, too much on your to-do list and not enough time to do it, moves, bills, and on and on) you have a constant supply of stress hormones running through your veins like a drip line filled with Red Bull.

 

Can you imagine just how drained and depleted you’d become eventually if this were the case? Well it IS the case. Adrenaline and cortisol are powerful drugs which is why many of us are “stress-junkies.” They feel really good, until they don’t.

 

Unfortunately, stress is king in the body. The adrenals, which are responsible for the stress response, are also responsible for governing functions like sleep, sex drive, sex hormones, weight and metabolism, thyroid function and more. But, when they are burdened with pumping out more and more cortisol to meet the demands of our stress levels, these other processes take a back seat. Essentially, your adrenals take the nutrients reserved for making all these other things happen and shove them into the cortisol-manufacturing process. So, now that you’re aware of the way that works, let’s dive into cortisol’s effects on our body composition.

 

#1: Cortisol is catabolic. Catabolic is just a fancy way of saying that cortisol breaks down hard earned muscle tissue. Now, in small doses, not a big deal. But in every day cases, where you’re in a constant state of catabolism, muscle degrades while fat increases. That’s because it’s cortisol’s job to turn amino acids into glucose, remember from above? Those amino acids are most readily found in muscle tissue. Muscle is way more metabolically active than fat, meaning it uses up, or burns, more calories sustaining itself than fat. More muscle = higher metabolism. More cortisol = less muscle. You see the problem?

 

 

#2: Cortisol promotes the storage of belly fat. During times of stress or famine, the most important things to protect are our vital and reproductive organs. Where are they? Yep, in the belly and hip region. Cortisol is what gives us the famous spare tire or muffin-top, despite working out and eating healthily. There are actually more cortisol receptors in the tissue of our abdominal reason specifically for this purpose. More stress = more belly fat.

 

 

#3: Cortisol increases blood sugar, which increases insulin, which increases fat storage. Now, insulin gets a bad rap, but essentially we need it in order to get glucose into our cells. When our blood sugar rises because we eat, it’s insulin’s job to open up our cells so that energy from our food can get in. This is why we call it the “storage” hormone. However, when cortisol is released and goes around breaking down muscle into glucose, our blood sugar rises. Only, we don’t necessarily need this extra fuel and our body knows this, so it releases an overload of insulin to lower our blood sugar. We are now storing not only fuel from our food, but also fuel from the extra glucose floating around and our cells are full. Not only does this end up causing us to store more fat, but also to become insulin resistant as our cells can’t take any more energy. High cortisol = high blood sugar = high insulin = extra fat.

 

 

So, now that we’ve painted a pretty grim picture, let’s talk about what you can proactively do to mitigate these effects, because, let’s be honest, it’s frustrating to watch your waist expand despite all your hard work and healthful living.

 

While I highly recommend turning down the volume on your high intensity exercise routine and making sure you’re eating a diet high in greens, healthy fats and clean protein, I want to focus today’s tips on emotional/perceived stress. We call it perceived stress in the health industry because really, what stresses one person out (like doing taxes or working 60 hours a week) may not bother another. We all come with different, unique set points based on our genetics, childhood, lifestyle etc., so what we perceive as stressful isn’t in and of itself stressful. Now, the best way to lower emotional stress is to take a look at your perceptions and see how you can reframe them into something that isn’t stressful.

 

Let’s look at a fairly neutral situation like end-of-day traffic. You’re on your way home from work and stuck in traffic even though you need to be at your son’s baseball game in 30 minutes and still haven’t eaten since breakfast. You could: Scream at the drivers in front of you, curse the traffic gods, stress about being late and hungry and panic at the thought of showing up in front of all the other mother’s late – again – in your work clothes – tired and hungry…

 

OR

 

You could step back and look at it another way. By the very definition that you are in traffic, you should be in traffic. It’s rush hour in a big city, there’s usually a wreck or something blocking the flow, and it’s pretty typical. That’s just the way it is. So, you decide to enjoy your time listening to the podcast you never have a moment alone to play or that new audio book you purchased, but again, don’t have time for. You also realized that your hubby is stuck in traffic as well on his way home, so you call him and have a flirty, fun conversation you don’t get to do as much these days with kids around 24/7 and decide that he’ll cook dinner while you’re at the game. Before you know it, the traffic has cleared and you’re on your way to the game, and because you’re in such a good mood, stop by the store for a snack, and meet your best friend walking in to the game, who also happens to be late – because of traffic.

 

Now – which one do you think releases cortisol and which one do you think releases happy, feel-good hormones?

 

I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you the answer. And, while this might seem like a silly situation, you can take any possible situation in your life and choose to meet it with grace, patience and love or fear, panic and stress. Reframing is a powerful way to calm down our stress response and therefore naturally allow our bodies to thrive.

 

In short, if you’re working yourself to death at the gym and haven’t touched a carb since ’98, I’d recommend that instead of doing more, you do a little less. Show yourself some compassion, choose to see your life with some light, and see if those extra lbs. don’t come melting off. I dare you.

Until next time, 

Sy

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Stress and Digestion: The Missing Link



Do you ever feel like you’re doing all the right things, eating all the right foods and taking all the right supplements, yet still struggle daily with digestive issues like bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion or heartburn?

 

If so, you’re not alone. In fact, a survey done a few years ago in 2013 showed that a staggering 74% of Americans are affected by some sort of gastro-intestinal upset every single day. 74% you guys! That means 3 out of 4 people are walking around with symptoms right now that are not only painful and interfering, but also often embarrassing.

 

So here’s the thing. There is so much good information out there on digestive support: how to help heal stomach acid production, increase enzymes and eat foods that are healing to your body. In fact, I am constantly preaching to my clients and people I meet about quality digestive aids and tangible ways to reduce symptoms. But, the even more important part that doesn’t make headlines, and what I’m determined to make a splash about, is the connection between our brain and gut, aptly called the gut-brain axis.

 

Let me say it in a one-liner: Stress makes good digestion impossible.

Let that sink in.

 

Stress, both chronic and acute, emotional and physical, make good digestion impossible.

 

Now, that might irritate you to no end (stress reduction tends to be a bit difficult to nail down for “doers”), or it might excite you as the missing piece of the puzzle you’ve desperately been trying to figure out. Either way, today we’re going to dive into why, despite your best efforts, you’re still not getting the relief you’ve been searching for.

 

The Gut-Brain Axis.  

We’re gonna nerd out for a quick minute, so stay with me here…

The system in your body that controls all of your automatic processes, like breathing, digestion and your heart beat, is called the Autonomic Nervous System. Within this system, there are two divisions called the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic division is your “fight or flight” control board. It’s the system that gets turned on and tuned in when you’re under physical or emotional stress, essentially amping up adrenaline and other hormones and neurotransmitters so get you ready to deal with that stressor. All in all, it’s a life saving system that serves us very well in times of acute stress. Acute meaning intense but short lived. The second division is the parasympathetic, also referred to as your “rest and digest” mode. This is the system that is turned on during times of relaxation and rest. You can think of the two systems as balancing. The sympathetic system will increase blood pressure, say during exercise, and then the parasympathetic will decrease it once the exercise is over. Push/pull, yin and yang.

 

When these two systems are working optimally, all is well. But what tends to happen in our modern day culture is that we get into what is called Sympathetic Dominance, or chronic stress. When this happens, the body systems, hormones and processes triggered by the sympathetic system stay turned on too much and the systems, hormones and processes triggered by parasympathetic take a back seat. This includes digestion.

 

Digestion is a parasympathetic activity, hence the name “rest and digest.” Historically, and ancestrally, if you are running from a saber tooth tiger, the last thing your body is thinking about is digesting your lunch. It’s working instead to pump blood out of the internal organs and into the arms and legs to give you energy to run and making large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol to keep blood sugar levels, and hence energy levels, high so you feel alert.

 

Now, our bodies and brains are smart in a lot of ways, but they are also fairly simplistic in others. One of these ways includes our inability to distinguish between chronic, ruminating stressors like traffic and fights with our spouse and actual danger. We are living in a culture that is sky high in fear, negativity, power struggles and emotional warfare. You get on the freeway and your life is literally on the line every time someone swerves in and cuts you off. We eat processed junk that barely resembles food and make our bodies work ten times as hard processing it. We can’t stop thinking about how much our boss pisses us off and picture all the things we’d say if we ever got the chance. We spend so much time staying busy avoiding painful feelings that we load our schedules up with school, activities and family and friends leaving hardly any time to pee, let alone eat or breathe. We exercise because he hate our bodies and hope they’ll change not because because we love them and want to see them thrive. And here’s the crazy part: All of this is considered normal and functional by 99% of our society.

 

But here’s the thing, living in this kind of world, the kind we create in our minds where everything happens TO us and our lives are an endless to-do list, puts us in a constant state of fear, worry and stress, thereby making it impossible to enter into a parasympathetic state that is so vital to our health and wellness.

 

Some of the ways stress affects the health of our gut:

1.     Decreases the production of gastric juices like stomach acid, which is a critical trigger to every other digestive process and breaks down proteins. The whole cascade is affected by low stomach acid.

2.     Decreases gut motility, or your digestive tract’s ability to physically move your food along. This allows food to ferment and putrify leading to gas and bloating.

3.     An over-production of cortisol breaks down mucosal barriers, which are the thin line separating your stomach and gut from the rest of your body, leading to leaky gut. Leaky gut is bad news for everyone involved.

4.     Harms healthy bacteria and allows pathogenic bacteria to thrive in the changed gut conditions. Our beneficial gut bacteria make up 80% of our immune system, so you can see why we want these guys healthy and alive!

 

These are just a few linear examples of how stress directly affects digestion, but keep in mind that the body is a complex web of processes that all affect each other in different ways. The main take-a-way here though should be that even when it seems like all the other conditions for good digestion are in place, if you’re body isn’t able to access that parasympathetic state, it will become compromised in one way or another.

 

So, now, what to do?

 

Here are a few of my favorite ways to make sure I stay in a parasympathetic state most of the time.

 

1.     Do some deep breathing exercises before your meals. 5-10 deeps breaths in and out through your left nostril automatically puts you in a parasympathetic state by stimulating your vagus nerve.  If you’re not in a place where this is possible, try to chew slowly and avoid putting more food before you’ve had the chance to swallow your last bite. This methodical eating signals to your brain that everything is good and it can relax and let go.

 

2.     Pick up some sort of daily meditation or mindfulness practice. This isn’t something you do during your meals necessarily, but putting your body in a relaxed, concentrated state for specific times during the day signals to the brain that it’s ok to let go. This in turn signals to the body that it too can let go and you can see how the cycle continues. The more time you spend practicing these states of being, the easier it becomes to call upon them as needed.

 

3.     Be kind and gentle to yourself about the foods and meals you are eating. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had some nasty thoughts about your body at one point or another. It’s sad that so many of us have felt body shame during our lives, but we’re working to change that!  In the mean time, giving yourself permission to enjoy and love your food helps shift your mindset and recalibrate your nervous system to feel good, again, relaxing your body.

 

4.     Think of something or someone you love. Spending time every day considering all the things we love and are grateful for in our lives has a calming, relaxing effect on the body’s systems. Next time you find yourself struggling with an emotional stressor, try stepping out of it for 60 seconds and begin listing off the things for which you are grateful. At the end of the minute, you can come back to the problem at hand, but I’m betting it will look and feel very different. This allows you to come from a place of love rather than fear and goes a long way in healing the body and mind.

 

5.     Spend time with loved ones. We all have those days where we’ve made commitments with friends but now feel like backing out because we’re too tired or stressed or just don’t feel like it. But positive social connections go a long way in reducing levels of stress and anxiety. Next time you feel like canceling, I urge you to get up out of your Netflix binge and do it anyway. Your digestion will thank you. J

 

 

So there you have it. While this isn’t nearly the entire picture or every nuanced aspect of how stress and digestion are connected, it should paint a picture that is worth looking into if you haven’t quite nailed down your digestive distress yet.

 

Until next time…

Much love,

Sy

 

 

 

 

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