And for women in their 40’s and 50’s who are approaching or going through the menopause this is even more significant. In this article I want to explain exactly why managing your stress levels is so crucial on you weight journey. Once you really understand the effect that stress is having on your body, I hope you will see that managing stress is just as important as nutrition and exercise.
How you respond to stress: Fight or Flight
This defensive mechanism is hardwired in our brains and is crucial for the survival of all animals. When your brain thinks that your life is in danger it releases a hormone called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones we are more familiar with – adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones trigger a number of physical changes in your body:
Stage 1 – Alarm
- Your heart rate and blood pressure rise
- Your digestive system shuts down – your brain thinks your life is in danger so diverts its energy elsewhere
- Your liver releases glucose into your bloodstream to give you instant energy to either fight or flee
- Your immune system produces more white blood cells and the clotting ability of your blood increases so that if you are injured you will recover quicker
- You start to breath faster and shallower to get oxygen quickly to your brain, heart and muscles
- Blood moves from your internal organs to your muscles (to help your run or fight)
This first stage is incredibly intense and your body is so alert and pumped; it explains why people have been known to perform extraordinary feats of strength when faced with a life or death situation.
Stage 1 is usually short-lived. Once the threat has passed your body enters a recovery phase: adrenaline levels come down fairly quickly (a few hours), cortisol levels a bit slower (a few days) and eventually your hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure etc., normalise.
However, modern day life means that many of us live under constant stress (debt, family feuds, juggling work & family commitments, the daily commute, yo-yo dieting, lack of sleep etc., etc.,) and if the perceived threat or stress is not removed then your body stays on high alert and eventually adapts to deal with this by keeping your cortisol levels high. This can lead to resistance.
Stage 2 – Resistance
With increased cortisol levels your body stays in fight or flight mode. You’ll experience cravings and an increased appetite and may feel more irritable, frustrated or suffer from poor concentration. Your blood sugar levels remain higher to provide you with the energy your brain thinks you need and as your body thinks needs a convenient fat store ready for constant use, it creates one – usually around your middle.
Marilyn Glenville, author of Fat Around the Middle, describes the resistance stage like “driving a car with your food on the accelerator the whole time – even when stationery – because fear and anxiety frequently continue even after a stressful situation has passed”.
Struggling with stress for long periods of time will not only lead to weight gain, it will drain you physically and emotionally and eventually lead to…
Stage 3 – Exhaustion
This stage is the result of prolonged stress, where your body simply cannot keep functioning with it’s foot on the accelerator. Signs of exhaustion include:
- Debilitating fatigue
- A feeling of hopelessness and wanting to give up
So if you struggle to lose weight and have a tendency to store fat around your middle, I hope you understand why managing your stress levels is absolutely essential.
And it is particularly important if you’re a woman in her 40’s or 50’s.
Estrogen helps to protect your body from the effects of cortisol. As your estrogen levels start to drop you become even more susceptible to stress, making it even more critical that you take the necessary steps to manage your stress levels. I have worked with women who appear to have their diet and exercise just right but because they’re living in a state of constant stress, they really struggle to lose weight.
Don’t fall into the trap of making stress management an afterthought – it’s one of the most important things you can do for your health and weight loss goals.