What we eat is important when it comes to nutritional health but equally important is who are as eaters – meaning our internal state of mind and ultimately, the degree to which we are in a stress response when we eat.
Too many people are restricted when it comes to healing their food and health challenges simply because they have not acknowledged the role stress is playing in their lives. Stress can be easily overlooked when it comes to nutrition and weight management.
It is important to note that stress has a lot to answer for in our lives and whilst some stress is essential and good for us, too much stress and the wrong kind can powerfully impact:
- Our ability to lose weight
- Binge Eating
- Emotional Eating
- Digestive functionality
Some stress itself is necessary, designed for survival and here to help us. For example, if we are in a threatening situation, our stress response allows blood flow to our extremities to move quickly, our heart rate to increase, our senses to become more attuned, digestion turns off to use the energy elsewhere in our body to physically respond to the threat, and this stress response can be necessary and vital for us. However, this response is only designed to be active and present for 2-3 minutes, after that the negative effects of stress begin to take hold. Unfortunately, due to the high-pressure environments we now live in, this kind of stress response can exist within us day in and day out for long periods of time. When we experience a lot of continuous stress, our body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare our body for action. When hormones such as cortisol remain high, insulin levels increase, which in effect leads to a drop in our blood sugar levels.
This makes us more susceptible to eating “comforting foods” such as chocolate or ice cream because we begin to crave sugary, fatty foods, and therefore we’re more likely to reach for those comfort foods.
It’s also important to understand that stress exists on a continuum. The degree of our stress response and its duration can correspond with the intensity of our unwanted eating challenge or health symptom.
There are versions of stress, one kind is real e.g. financial, cultural pressures, relationships, work, and the other is self-chosen. Self-chosen stressors are thoughts we think and judgements we make about our self, our body, our life and the people around us. These are optional stressors. For example, I am not good enough, I am not lovable enough, I am too big, I am too skinny, I am not perfect, I have big thighs, I should look different, I should act differently. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t distinguish between a real and imagined stress and these kinds of stressful thoughts have metabolic power, creating a stress response that can attribute to weight gain or weight loss resistance. If we continue to think these kinds of thoughts over many years, we lock in a certain stress physiology.
There are two nervous systems in our body that we need to pay attention to when it comes to stress and weight management. The first is our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight mode) and the second is our parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest mode). The sympathetic nervous system is most active when the stress response is most active. The same switch that turns on the stress response in the brain – the sympathetic nervous system, turns off digestion - reduces nutrient assimilation, and slows down day in day out calorie burning ability, it decreases our ability to burn fat and build muscle, deregulates mood, releases stress chemicals including insulin and cortisol which can increase fat storage, decreases blood flow to the gut and so much more.
Conversely, the switch in the brain that turns on the relaxation response in the brain – the parasympathetic nervous system – turns on the full healthy digestive and calorie burning power in our bodies.
You can eat the healthiest food and most balanced diet but if it is eaten in any degree of stress you may have decreased the nutritional value of your meal which can adversely affect your metabolism. What I am saying is; our frame of mind can impact our eating challenges.
Some stressors to consider:
- Eating fast – our bodies are designed to eat slowly and chew our food
- Eating while anxious or in a rush
- Eating while multitasking
- Dieting – food deprivation
- Meal skipping
- Lack of pleasure in food
- Toxic nutritional beliefs
- Body hate/shaming
For example, when we deprive ourselves of food, ie diet, skip meals, skip food groups, or artificially suppress our appetite to try to lose weight, or when we are nutrient deficient because of a poor-quality diet, or a lack of essential fatty acids because of a fat phobia, the survival response can be activated. In such cases the deprivation drives us to seek food as the body senses a lack of food, our appetite becomes heightened and we struggle to control our impulses or appetite and erroneously believe there is something wrong with us. This is why diets don’t work for the majority of people. When we deny the body of food, it lets us know, very loudly.
When we eat under stress, our ability to effectively burn calories, digest our food, assimilate nutrients, build muscle, and burn fat, to name a few, becomes affected and as a result we may hold on to weight rather than letting it go.
We do have a choice.
· We need to learn to exist in the world with the real stressors we face and learn to regulate and navigate them with greater skills and efficiency.
· We need to learn how to let go of self-chosen stressors.
· We need to start to see how we use food to regulate our discomfort and stress.
· We need to start to relax into our eating challenges, health and weight concerns.
The body is a bio-dynamic super computer – it knows it needs to be in a relaxation response to properly digest, and this is when change happens. My goal is to help ease you from sympathetic nervous system dominance to parasympathetic nervous system dominance. This is when you can optimally digest, assimilate, calorie burn, have your best and most natural appetite regulation and where you will see some magical results!
If you would like to discuss this in more detail, or any other health concerns you may have, please contact me via the Free 15 min Consult button at the top of my website and we can chat.