Stress affects the communication between the brain and gastrointestinal (GI) system, making GI symptoms more apparent, because stress affects all parts of the GI system, including the oesophagus (food pipe), stomach, and bowel. Symptoms can include:
When the body is under stress, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action releasing adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and blood pressure, and cortisol releases fatty acids and glucose. Known as the fight or flight response, this happens so you have energy to escape from a risky situation.
Once the threat has subsided your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar spike drops so, cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply. However, the body does not differentiate between life threatening and non-life-threatening situations. Therefore, the biochemical response to stress is the same whether you’re about to be hit by a bus and need to move quickly, or you’re looking at the 100 new emails in your inbox that all need urgent attention.
Sugar supplies your body with quick energy, so it is often the first thing you reach for when you are stressed. When you’re stressed and reach for that quick fix, you end up with excess sugar (which as been converted into glucose) in your blood stream and all that glucose in your system needs to go somewhere (unless you used it to escape being hit by the bus). Consequently, it get stored.
Firstly it is stored in you muscles and kidney as glycogen ready for the next emergency.
Secondly, when the muscles and liver are at capacity, glucose is stored in your fat cells, and it’s mainly stored in abdominal fat.
And so the vicious cycle starts: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave more sugar, eat more sugar, gain more weight.
Even if you are not eating foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.
Cortisol is a long-term stress hormone and for thousands of years the only long-term stress humans encountered were drought, famine, and war. During these times, food was scarce, and it made sense the metabolism was slowed so we did not spend as much energy. Our present-day long-term stresses are likely to be financial, relationship or uncertainty about the future.
Here is the problem: our metabolism is slowed for the perceived impending famine, but there is plenty of food available. Some of the food we eat is used however, due to our slower metabolism, we do not need as much, so the remainder gets stored and it gets stored as fat – again, around our middle section.
In addition to hormonal changes related to stress, stress can also drive you to engage in unhealthy behaviours.
When you are stressed, healthy behaviours likely eating properly and exercising regularly are easily forgotten. Maintaining a schedule or routine can help make these healthy behaviours a habit and, as a result, combat stress-related weight changes.
But most importantly, be kind to yourself. These habits weren’t formed overnight and neither was any weight gain.
If you are interested in knowing more about how stress affects your body then please get in touch. As a qualified nutritionist*, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have
* Bachelor of Science (Biochemistry and Biological Science) University of Canterbury
Graduate Diploma Human Nutrition, Ara Institute of Canterbury
Member of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand, Associate Registered Nutritionist