This time of year would have to be the most popular for weight loss goals. Leading into Summer everyone freaks out that they aren’t going to look great in their bikini at the beach or that they’ve gone a bit hard on the extra food during Winter. Regardless of your motivation, there’s no denying that there’s a large number of people currently wanting to lose weight - it’s the most common reason people come to see me.
Well what if I told you that in some instances even the most perfect food and exercise routine won’t necessarily lead to weight loss? That’s because there’s a third piece to that puzzle which is called stress. That’s right, you can follow one of my meal plans and exercise for an hour a day if you like, but that weight will not shift if you are constantly stressed. Let’s look at why that is.
First things first, some stress in our life is needed and we could not survive without our stress response. However this should only be acute stress where the stressor is presented to us, we initiate the stress response temporarily, and then the stressor is removed and we return to homeostasis. Where the problem lies is that these days many of us experience chronic stress because the stressors are not removed and we face multiple stressors at the one time. This means your body is constantly triggering your stress response, 24/7 for some of us.
You may have heard of the fight or flight response which is the response of our sympathetic nervous system when we are presented with a stress. Essentially it is preparing your body to either fight the stress, or run away from the stress. What should happen then is that the stress is removed and our parasympathetic nervous system takes over to restore balance again. The main role of the sympathetic nervous system is to redirect blood flow to the areas of the body that are most important for fighting or running away from a stressor (eg. our muscles), and away from areas that aren’t needed for that purpose (ie. digestive, reproductive and immune systems). Here are some of the responses that happen when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and why we don’t want this system firing all the time.
- Decreased digestion: You would know from a time that you have been stressed yourself that you experience a dry mouth. This is because saliva production is reduced when we are stressed, along with other digestive secretions that help break down our food. This means we can’t digest our food and absorb the nutrient we should be when stressed. Hello bloating, stomach pains and wind!
- Increased gut sensitivity: Proper digestion improves the integrity of our gut wall so when this is compromised we also experience an increase in sensitivity/imbalance of bacteria in our gut. This is also more likely to lead to bloating, stomach pains and also skin and mental health issues.
- Imbalanced hormones: When our sympathetic nervous system is activated is stimulates the release of our stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are considered priority and use up all of your body’s reserves so there is less production of our other hormones such as our happy hormones and sex hormones. Note - stress not good for baby making!
- Decreased fat burning: to fight or flight our bodies need a quick release of energy so the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the release of glucose for our body to use. This means burning fat for fuel does not become a priority.
In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect to the points mentioned above and works to encourage digestion, improve gut lining integrity, balance hormones and promote fat burning. Therefore if you feel like you are stressed a lot of the time you would benefit from trying to activate your parasympathetic nervous system more often, especially when eating.
So if weight loss is your goal, you need to be able to manage your stress so that you have balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems rather than having sympathetic dominance.
The best way to do this is via deep breathing, meditation, relaxation techniques, being in nature, eating mindfully, being present and any other techniques that work for you to keep yourself cool, calm and collected. It is particularly important for you to do this when eating so that you can utilise the important nutrients you are taking in. A few deep breaths before you sit down to eat, as well as eating mindfully will go a long way to helping with this.