Is stress making you fat?
Scientific evidence shows a link between stress and eating. Photo: Getty
You know the feeling - you have a zillion things to do and you feel as if your head is about to explode. Suddenly, a sweet treat or a glass of sav blanc is all you want, but at what cost? Whether it is the extra wine you find yourself drinking in the evening to unwind or the chocolate bar you devour at the end of another long day, chances are that stress is making you fat.
Stress is defined as a feeling of being unable to respond emotionally or physically to real or perceived threats in daily life. A little stress is not a bad thing; in fact, it can be good for us. In small doses, stress gets the blood pumping and improves attention and concentration.
But chronically high levels of stress can impair immune function and mood, and play havoc with the hormones that control our weight. Two groups of hormones - the glucocorticoids (which include cortisol) and the catecholamines - are known to put significant pressure on the body's immune system as well as on the metabolism when elevated. High levels of cortisol can prevent weight loss, as they signal the body to adopt a "storage" approach to fat as it prepares itself for famine, war or other scenarios in which food may be limited.
This means that people who experience chronic stress, and whose stress hormones are significantly elevated as a result, may not be able to lose weight, no matter what they eat or how much they exercise.
Sydney-based endocrinologist Dr Leah Katsoulotos sees clients who may have high cortisol levels that affect their weight and mood. "In these patients the body produces excess cortisol due to extreme stress or even depression," she says. "These patients often have symptoms of weight gain as well as difficulty losing weight. Once these patients deal with the underlying issues causing the stress or depression, we often see these cortisol levels return to normal."
Sandra is an example of stressed professional chronically running herself ragged. Working long hours as a marketing researcher, she combined a high level of work stress with interstate commuting as well as an intense one- to two-hour daily workout.
Despite a huge commitment to health and fitness, she found it difficult to lose weight.
A consultation with an endocrinologist showed her cortisol levels to be four times
the normal range, which explained Sandra's highly wired state, insomnia and inability to shift weight. It was only after trying everything else that Sandra relented and swapped her high-intensity cardio training for yoga, which has helped to reduce her cortisol levels and seen her lose the final couple of kilograms that had bothered her for some time.
Another unwelcome by-product of stress is the way we automatically reach for cake
or chocolate when the pressure is high.
Stress-eaters tend to find temporary relief by eating certain types of food, the links to which are likely to have been formed when they were young. Just as crying babies and tantrum-throwing toddlers are often soothed with sweet "reward"-type foods, so too do adults learn to soothe themselves with high-kilojoule treats.
A small body of scientific evidence shows a link between stress and eating.
A study at New York University found that pre-menopausal women who produced more cortisol consumed more kilojoules, and more sweet-tasting foods, when stressed than women who produced less cortisol.
It also appears that while not everyone is susceptible to emotional eating, for those who are the impact on weight can be significant. A 2003 study comparing the responses of normal-weight and overweight women to stress found that the more a woman weighed, the more likely she was to eat in response to negative moods and situations.
Stress also seems to be directly linked to over-consumption of certain food types.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Liverpool gave participants free access to chocolate after finishing a number of stressful tasks, during which their blood pressure and heart rate were also monitored. The researchers found that certain stressful tasks produced a unique response in female volunteers. Females proved more likely to over-consume in response to stress, with participants eating up to 120 grams (or 2100 kilojoules' worth) of chocolate in one sitting.
But there are ways to counteract the effect. The key to preventing stress-related eating is to identify the times in which you feel most stressed and try to reduce your anxiety.
Deep breathing is useful, and meditation is a proven stress buster.
It's also important not to keep poor-quality, high-fat foods at home or you will be sure to reach for them when stress levels are high.
Next, the trick is to reprogram your mind to seek out ways other than eating to self-soothe. Massage, exercise and even taking time out for a coffee and your favourite magazine are all ways to find comfort - and come without the extra kilojoules.
However, often it's as simple as putting the worrying situation into perspective and accepting that in life things do not always go to plan. The issue or frustration causing the stress is rarely life-threatening.
And, finally, remember that even if the things that make us stressed are unlikely to change, the way we respond to them can.
Five ways to de-stress
• Spend 10 minutes every morning and each day after work simply sitting or lying and breathing deeply to clear your mind.
• Set aside time each day when you have no electronic stimulus.
• Ensure the bedroom is a place for sleep and sex only - no TVs, tablets or phones.
• When you feel stressed, ask yourself, "Is it really that big a deal?"
• Seek ways to limit stress in your day-to-day life, such as avoiding peak-hour traffic.