Training, Nutrition and Wellbeing

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STRESS AND WEIGHT GAIN CONNECTION (by John Smidt)


Many of us, mostly through personal observation, know that if you are constantly under stress for a prolonged period of time you tend to gain weight. Making bad food choices due to a lack of time to eat, or prepare food, would be an obvious cause but there is much more to the story. The real culprit is actually high insulin levels that eventually lead to insulin resistance, unwanted weight gain and eventually obesity.

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be helpful, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it can be bad for your health.

Cortisol is the so-called stress hormone which mediates the flight-or-fight response, a set of physiological responses to perceived threats. Cortisol prepares the body for action by moving energy out of stores and into readily available forms such as glucose. 


In ancient times, the stress that led to the release of cortisol was mostly physical and necessitated a physical response i.e fighting off a predator or running away from it. The energy released as a result of cortisol in these situations was used up in the action to escape or deal with the physical threat. 

In modern times however, most stressors are non-physical and reacting with a physical response can have unwanted consequences. Ideally, you cannot chase your coworkers around the office or run away from a challenging meeting when you are having a stressful day at work.


The body’s stress response however have remained the same. With every stressful event the body prepares you to deal with it by releasing cortisol which in turn liberates glucose into the bloodstream. Glucose in the bloodstream in turn signals the release of insulin which helps to drive the glucose into the cells where it gets used for energy.


The problem comes in with prolonged times of stress, also known as chronic stress. In our modern-day lives, we have many chronic, nonphysical stressors that increase our cortisol levels. For example, marital issues, problems at work, arguments with children, sleep deprivation etc. These are all serious stressors, but they do not result in the vigorous physical exertion needed to burn off the blood glucose released to allow the body to deal with physical stressors.


High levels of insulin and insulin resistance is the drivers for unwanted weight gain and obesity. Under conditions of chronic stress, glucose levels remain high for extended periods of time. In turn high levels of insulin are also released to cater for the high levels of glucose. The chronic high levels of insulin eventually lead to insulin resistance as the body starts to get less sensitive to insulin. A viscious cycle ensues as the body compensates by releasing more insulin to counteract the insulin resistance.


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Reducing stress is not always easy, but vitally important. Also contrary to popular belief, sitting in front of the television or computer is a poor way to relieve stress. Stress relief is an active process. Some tried and tested methods of dealing with stress are mindfulness meditation, yoga, massage therapy, hypnotherapy and exercise. If you struggle to incorporate these into your life, or don’t know where to start, a health coach, trainer or counsellor can help. You also don’t have to feel forced into a specific practise, explore more than one and choose the one you feel suited for you.


You can also contact us at info@bodysynergy.co.za or 078 036 8702 if you need help or advice on available options to deal with stress in your life. Our health coach can help you put together a plan to assist with dealing with your stress.