You are probably familiar with how stress and anxiety make you feel– uncomfortable! While these all-too-familiar experiences may start to feel “normal”-  it’s worth taking a closer look at the impact they have on your health. The reality is that stress and anxiety have wide-reaching impacts on health, and they can also get in the way of our best efforts to reach our health goals.

Stress and anxiety can have a very real and measurable impact on weight in the following ways:

  • Impact hormones in a way that makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose weight. 
  • Increase cravings
  • Decrease satiety
  • Make portion control more challenging
  • Interrupt sleep (making hunger, satiety, cravings, portion control challenges worse)
  • Make certain types of exercise counter-productive
  • Make behavior change more challenging  

If you have tried everything and still your weight won’t budge, unmanaged physiologic stress may be the reason. Similarly, we may not fully recognize how anxiety drives our physiology, as well as our emotions. Being aware of how stress and anxiety present in our food choices, moods and habits can help us regain a sense of control.

Some Common Emotional, Mental, and Physical Signs and Symptoms that Stress and Anxiety May Be Impacting Your Health

Feeling (Emotionally)

  • Feeling irritable, angry, or struggling to manage emotions
  • Feeling overwhelmed, unable to determine what you need or want
  • Depressed feelings – loss of interest in doing things you’re normally passionate about
  • Feeling scattered and unable to settle
  • Feeling distracted

Thinking (Mentally)

  • Decreased memory, concentration, and focus
  • Struggling to keep on task, switching from thing to thing without completing a task
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Worrying or being hyper-focused on problem solving/solutions 
  • Restlessness

Body (Physically)

  • Headaches
  • Body aches and tension in regions of the body
  • Chest pain or tension, difficulty taking a full, deep breath.
  • Upset stomach, gas, bloating, digestive disruption
  • Feeling excessively tired after eating, or a physical exertion
  • Insomnia – either difficulty falling or staying asleep, OR early morning waking (with your mind racing)
  • Fatigue
  • Poor muscle endurance
  • Weight gain, or significant difficulty losing weight
  • Increase in appetite, cravings
  • Loss of libido

How The Body Manages Stress

The primary way the body manages stress is through a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is secreted by two little endocrine glands that sit on top of each kidney called adrenal glands and is the substance our body responds with when faced with any stressful event. We naturally have a circadian rhythm of cortisol, which means it normally fluctuates throughout the day. It is the highest first thing in the morning (that’s right, historically, waking up was the most stressful thing you could do!) Part of the reason for this is because it helps to mobilize fuel in your system after you have been fasting all night. One very important function of cortisol is to help regulate blood sugars. Cortisol also helps regulate immune function, impacts inflammation, and has been shown to impact the function of other hormones including insulin and the hormone that stimulates thyroid hormone production. 

Cortisol has the following functions:
– Helps control blood sugars
– Regulate immune function
– Regulate inflammation
– Impacts other hormones including insulin and the function of the thyroid
– Impacts digestive function through both nervous system and hormone controls

Additionally, it is now understood that a majority of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are produced in the gut by the microbiome, so if stress is slowing down digestive function, it is also slowing down cognitive function.

How To Support Your Body in Managing the Impacts of Stress 

Okay, you’ve identified you’re stressed and anxious, so now what?

Diet – eat in a way that stabilizes blood sugars. If blood sugars are not well managed, that creates more work for the adrenals and requires more cortisol. Managing blood sugars will also reduce cravings and help with portion control (which will help more directly with weight loss). Eating to manage blood sugars also helps to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

Exercise – When cortisol levels are out of balance, exercise can either help or hinder your weight loss goals. The intensity of exercise matters, depending on if cortisol is elevated, normal, or low. 

Engaging in high-intensity exercise when cortisol levels are already high, can actually make it more difficult to lose weight, and can even contribute to weight gain. This is a time to do shorter high intensity workouts and focus more on longer, lower-intensity workouts. What is most important is that you keep your heart rate moderate, avoid getting into the cardio-training zone, and definitely not anaerobic. The sweet spot would feel like you’re out for a walk with a purpose, but not on a mission, for about 45- 60 minutes. Muscle building and infrequent short, higher intensity workouts should be the exception, about 1-2 workouts per week until cortisol levels normalize.

On the other hand, if cortisol levels are very low, due to periods of prolonged stress, (you might be able to tell if this is your situation because a workout would leave you feeling completely depleted), then skip the high-intensity workouts completely, focusing on shorter duration low-intensity levels of exercise, the equivalent of walking for 20-30 minutes (stopping well before you feel drained/depleted), and increasing the frequency (could be more than once a day). Some weight training is always recommended to help preserve muscle mass, but don’t plan on making big gains at this time.

Finally, if your cortisols are in the healthy range, you can plan to do a mixture of cardio and weight training at a moderate-to-high intensity regularly. Doing very high-intensity workouts more than 3 days a week is NOT recommended, no matter your cortisol levels. It tends to decrease your metabolic “flexibility” over time – that is to say, it creates the type of stress in the system that prevents weight loss!

Sleep – Sleep helps to regulate your cortisol levels. If you aren’t getting good sleep, cortisol levels can’t follow the normal pattern. If cortisol levels are out of balance, it makes sleep more difficult. So it becomes a vicious cycle of chicken and egg with sleep and cortisol. The good news is, that when you do something to benefit one, it benefits the other. Work on sleep hygiene practices with your provider, and see how that benefits your cortisol (as well as the added benefits on cravings and hunger/satiety.)

Stress Management– We tend to associate stress management with pampering or even a day at the spa. Almost as if stress management was a luxury, or, for that matter, optional. Stress management is not a luxury and it is definitely not optional. Keeping your nervous system resilient, and ready to respond rather than maxed out all the time is required for optimizing health and preventing disease. To some extent, it is also required for weight management, too. Simply put, if cortisol and stress are off the charts, you won’t lose weight.

Meditation, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (or MBSR), yoga, Tai Chi, massage… there are countless ways to approach stress management. Finding ways to relax and calm your nervous system is absolutely crucial for effective stress management.

Here are a few examples that may be supportive for you:
– Practice setting boundaries and saying “No”.
– Keep self-care near the top of the priority list (self-care here means, recognizing that your needs are (also as) important (as everyone else’s).
– Identify what you can control. Take action on what you can take action on. And let go of the rest.

Supplements – when diet and lifestyle aren’t sufficient, supplements can be a powerful tool for helping the body and mind recalibrate a sense of balance. Even the strongest pharmaceutical medication isn’t as effective if you aren’t managing your diet and lifestyle properly. Expect to address diet and lifestyle factors first, before going too deeply into supplementation for stress. Often, having a salivary cortisol test is crucial in guiding the most effective route for supplementation.  

You’re already working with your provider to identify factors that matter to your weight loss goals. Be sure to include an exploration of this topic because a one-size-fits-all solution is rarely effective. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of what you do that you need support with, but rather, how you do it. For example, focusing on building the skills necessary for effective habit change can be just as important as your right dose of exercise.  Your unique set of circumstances matters, and the right combination of diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, and even supplementation need to be tailored to you. 

Talk with your nutritionist about how to personalize your approach to each of these elements: diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, supplement, and a plan to include them consistently in your life. Your nutritionist is a vital tool to your healthcare team, in terms of providing the accountability, structure, and support to keep you moving forward on your goals. 

Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with Emmilia to get support on your journey to holistic and kind health.

Written by Starkel Nutrition provider, Emmilia Smith, MS, RDN

Edited by Starkel Nutrition Marketing Assistant, Mairin McCurdy