The entire month of September, I will be going through the top five factors you must address when working to achieve any weight loss goal: nutrition, mindset, stress, sleep, and movement.
Stress plays a huge role in holding onto weight, especially weight around the midsection that will not budge no matter how hard you try.
When we are chronically stressed (aka most people these days), our body tends to go into survival mode to keep us alive. The body doesn't differentiate between stress from work, family, and finances; it just sees it all as one huge lump of stress!
Plus, our bodies are used to two major stressors from the past: famine and lack of shelter, both of which are cases when it would be advantageous to have extra body fat on us (so we don't freeze or starve!).
So, our modern stressors basically put our bodies into that stressed out, survival mode in an attempt to keep us functioning. It's not what we wan't aesthetically, but it's what's going to happen unless you take a good, long look at the chronic stress in your life.
The Sources of Stress:
We talked about this in the first post in this series, but if we aren't giving our bodies the MACROnutrients and MICROnutrients it needs from real, whole foods, we will have stress from our nutrition. Artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, gluten, soy, and sugar are all major sources of dietary stress.
If you are working in a toxic environment or are in a career you absolutely hate, this can be a huge stresser on your body. We spend most of our time at work or doing work, so it makes sense that if we are dreading going to work or are drained and overworked in our profession that we would suffer health effects as a result.
This is another obvious stresser - if you are struggling to make ends meet or have the perception that you do (regardless of whether it's true or not), finances can have a huge impact on your stress levels. Typically, we spend a lot of time thinking about finances if this is something we are struggling with (creating anxiety, worry, and fear) or we are unable to afford some of the items that make living a healthy lifestyle attainable (higher quality foods or a gym membership). However, I do want to hone in on the point about perception of financial struggle. Often, what really needs to occur is a reallocation of our financial resources. More money doesn't always equal more happiness and less stress. Trust me on that.
Similar to your work environment, if your home isn't a place where you feel welcomed, safe, or literally at home, this can be a stressor on your body. It is important that we feel like we have a place in our lives where we are free to be ourselves and relax. If you are coming home to a messy home day in and day out or are in a home situation that isn't safe or ideal, your stress levels will definitely increase.
Our relationships with our family, friends, co-workers, and anyone else that we are in contact with on a regular basis is a huge factor in our stress levels. We've all had the experience of walking away from a person or conversation that left us feeling stressed and drained, both emotionally and physically.
Environmental toxins are everywhere; they literally surround us! Our cleaning and beauty products are loaded with chemicals and toxins that are creating a huge inflammatory problem in our bodies, which in turn creates a stressful environment. The plethora of sprays, scents, and products that we use on a daily basis is overwhelming. And when you add on top of that all of the chemicals that are in these products that are banned elsewhere in the world, you really start to feel the stressful effects. This is why I stand behind safer skincare products like Beautycounter.
Exercise can be a twofold stressor. Not exercising enough or having a sedentary lifestyle is a huge stressor on the body, as well as overexercising or exercising too much. When we underexercise, we miss out on the amazing benefits that exercise affords us, including increased dopamine response and the building of muscle mass. However, overtraining places too much of a demand on our body because exercise is a stressor, and any stressor (even a good one!) in excess is still a stressor. Too much exercise effects our gut health, immune system, nutrient level, sleep, and mental health.
Poor gut health
Our gut health is literally the powerhouse of our entire health. If our gut health is off for any reason due to antibiotic usage, stress, too much/too little exercise, poor food choices, or lack of sleep, our ability to fight off stress suffers significantly. There is more and more research coming out that shows the power of our gut health on all other aspects of our health, including blood sugar regulation (basically the development of diabetes or Alzheimer's), mental health, and hormonal health.
Not getting enough quality sleep is a huge source of stress on our bodies. Sleep is a time of repairing and recovery for our bodies, and when we deprive our bodies of sleep, our inflammation levels rise, creating a stressful environment in the body. We live in a society that praises staying out late and running on as little sleep as possible. We simply self-medicate with caffeine and other stimulates, but really, that isn't fixing the root cause problem. It's only making it worse!
Other minor sources of stress:
Anxiety and depression
Overuse of NSAIDs
Physical or emotional trauma
Erratic blood sugar levels
Fear of the unknown, worry
Poor body image or self-confidence (mindset!)
The sources of stress in our modern lifestyle are numerous and overwhelming. I don't want this list to become a stressor for you as you consider all the factors that are impacting your own personal stress levels. Instead, I urge you to use this list as a guide to objectively reevaluate your stress levels and what your main sources of stress are.
Inflammation - the real reason we hold onto weight when we are stressed
I've mentioned it numerous times already, but still it bears repeating. When our bodies are under stress, inflammation is created in the body. When our bodies become inflamed, all sorts of processes start to go wrong in the body as hormonal pathways are disrupted. Inflammation is truly at the root of stress and modern diseases.
The effects of stress are varied and numerous, but they are far from fun to deal with. But, they CAN be managed and reduced with carefully decisions. Let's discuss some of the strategies I recommend to help reduce stress in your life:
Strategies to Reduce Stress Today!
Relax, Breathe, and Calm Down
When we are stressed, we often get that feeling of complete overwhelm and busyness that crawls up inside of us. In order to properly reduce and manage stress, we must take some time to breathe deeply and relax. This allows us to get into a parasympathetic state where our body is relaxed. If we spend too much time in the sympathetic state (fight or flight state), we aren't doing our body or stress levels any good.
If you are stressed, the last thing you need are more items on your to-do list. Learning to say "no" to the activities, people, and things that don't bring you joy is a huge step in clearing your mind and body of stress.
Finding Joy in the Little Things
When we are stressed, it's far too easy to get caught up in the monotonous cycle of everyday life. You have to go outside of yourself to find little things each day that bring you joy. It can be something as simple as a little decoration on your desk at work that makes you smile.
Lavender is one of the best essential oils to help you calm down, but there are other great options as well including Frankicense and Serenity (a blend by doTerra). You can find more options here. Personally, I diffuse lavender before bed and also use serenity mixed with coconut oil before bed on my skin to help me relax, but simply smelling those oils can make a huge impact too.
If you aren't exercise, heading outside for a leisurely walk in nature will go a long way in reducing stress. Yoga is another popular option as well as it helps center the mind and body. I also recommend smart weight training for those that are stressed, as excess steady-state cardio (running, the elliptical, or biking typically) will only make your stress levels worse. We'll cover this in the last post in this series.
We've talked about sleep a lot in this series on stress, but for good reason. Stress and sleep are so intimately combined. In order to reduce stress, we must be getting enough quality sleep. Stay tuned for my next article all about sleep and weight loss.
Obviously, we need to be eating plenty of real, whole, nourishing foods in order to combat stress. I recommend avoiding common inflammatory foods like grains, conventional dairy, sugar, artificial sweeteners, soy, vegetable oils, trans fats, and food dyes and colors. These foods make our stress situation worse, as they rob our bodies of crucial nutrients. Focusing on real, whole food and eating in a PFC balanced manner that helps support your blood sugar is the best way to help continue to reduce and manage stress.
I started acupuncture over a year ago as a way to help reduce the impact of stress on my body, and it has been truly transformational for me. Acupuncture helps reset the bodily systems that may have been disrupted by stress. I highly recommend it for anyone dealing with stress, hormonal disruption, or any other ailments. Trust me - it's not as scary as it appears.
Developing a self-care routine is a huge factor in recovering from stress. Taking time to yourself, sitting in silence, getting a massage, doing activities that bring you joy, loving your body and yourself - these are all huge pieces of self-care that cannot be undermined. If you refuse to make self-care a part of your lifestyle in favor of giving everything to other people, you will eventually not be able to help out those you love because you refused to help yourself when you needed it the most.
Healing your gut health is vital to reducing inflammation and stress in the body. I recommend eating a real food diet, taking a high quality probiotic supplement or eating probiotic rich foods, and focusing on sleep. You can read more about other gut healing strategies here.
Taking time out of your day to write down your thoughts is a great way to rationalize those thoughts. So often, we get too caught up in our own minds that we have a hard time realize what thoughts are actually realistic and rational. Writing down what is on our mind is very helpful in this process. In addition, practicing gratitude in journaling is also helpful in reducing stress as it helps us remember all that we have to be grateful for instead of going down the negative path.
Seek Out Help
When in doubt, seek out the help of a counselor or health coach (like me!) to help you on your stress journey. It's not easy, but it's also even harder to go at it alone. I've been there, and I've found the best way to combat stress is to have a team of support on your side to help you through the good times and bad.
Other Strategies to Manage and Reduce Stress:
Book a massage
Hire a housekeeper once a month
Call a friend or write a letter to a friend
Sit outside and get some sunshine (vitamin D is super helpful!)
Take 5 deep belly breaths before each meal or major event of your day
Eliminate negative thinking patterns
Regardless of how you go about it, reducing stress is a HUGE piece of the puzzle when it comes to achieving weight loss goals. You can try and out-diet and out-exercise stress, but when it comes down to it, it won't work until you address the REAL reasons why you are so stressed.