Many of my clients admit to me that they eat when they are stressed. Turning to a bag of chips, a few chocolate chip cookies, or a carton of ice cream seems to give many people comfort –at least for the moment. Of course, the additional empty calories contribute to weight gain and may ultimately result in many added pounds each year.
But is there another link between stress and weight gain? Especially for women in their 40s or 50s, there seems to be an additional factor – one that may eventually lead to more serious problems than a few extra pounds.
The physical and psychological changes that occur during this time can be particularly challenging for women. Daily stressors of family, career, and friends can bring about perhaps the most emotionally charged time of a woman’s life. Issues such as divorce, retirement, career changes, empty –nesting, becoming a caregiver for an aging parent, or changes in residence can occur, not to mention the unpleasant symptoms of menopause.
Our bodies have always been programmed to respond to stress by producing the hormones cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones prepare the body for "fight or flight" in response to a stressor – fight the source of the stress, or flee from it altogether. Once a person has dealt with the stressor and it has passed, the body returns to a state of homeostasis or balance. However, in today’s world, we encounter one stressor after another, and the body may rarely have a chance to return to homeostasis. The levels of hormones, especially cortisol, remain elevated. Researchers have found a link between elevated cortisol levels and many other conditions, the least serious of which may be weight gain, especially around the abdomen. The adrenal glands which secrete cortisol become overworked and eventually begin to shut down. Other chronic conditions may develop, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac dysfunction.
So what is one to do? Effective stress management techniques are critical. Consider these strategies for decreasing stress during the midlife years.
Practice mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, guided imagery, and journal writing.
Take charge of the situation. When faced with a stressful situation, take a close look at all of your options. There may be something you can do to minimize the stressor itself. If not, take charge of your reaction. Perhaps your first response isn’t the best and there are other ways to handle the situation. Or can you completely remove yourself from the situation? Sometimes that is the only viable option.
Eat healthfully. Eating regular meals and healthy snacks will help keep blood sugar levels constant and prevent hunger. Try to eat less foods that are processed and more foods that are "whole" or "real" foods – those that are closest to their natural state and the least processed, with the least additives.
But don’t diet! Sometimes denying yourself food can create more stress. Dieting also may result in becoming deficient in certain key nutrients. Instead of dieting, simply reduce your portion sizes.
Monitor your eating. Keep track of why you are eating – if you discover that you are indeed an "emotional eater," try to find other activities instead of eating that bring you pleasure.
Get support from professionals. Counselors, therapists, nutritionists, and personal trainers can all help you effectively manage your stress in different ways.
Get plenty of rest. Eight hours of sleep is what most people require to recharge their batteries. You may need more or less to function clearly every day.
Meredith Nelson, M.Ed, is the owner of PrimeTime Fitness, Inc, on Sullivan’s Island. A Daniel Island resident, Meredith can be reached with your fitness questions at 883-0101, or Meredith@primetimefit.net.