We all know that we have a tendency to turn to food when we are stressed out, and it’s never a kale and quinoa salad either, let’s be honest!
However, there’s a far more important to understand BIOLOGICAL reason why stress will actively work against you if you are trying to lose some weight.
When we get stressed, we go into “Fight, Flight or Freeze”…. this is the primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, trying to protect us from danger. Back in the day, this was really important as the ‘danger’ was usually a woolly mammoth bearing down on us. The amygdala sends out a signal to the body that we are in danger, by pumping the stress hormones Cortisol, and Adrenaline, into our bloodstream. Our blood pressure and heart rate go up so we can run away quickly, and our breathing increases so we can get more oxygen in while we run.
However, back in the day, the woolly mammoth would have run out of steam, or you would find a safe cave to hide in, and the stress would be over. Your body would return to normal, and that was that.
Not so for us today. Life is busy. We are expected to be available 24/7 via technology. We are expected to juggle family, work, friends, other commitments and take care of ourselves at the same time. So it is not surprising that many of us feel stressed almost constantly – there’s never enough time to get it all done.
The problem with this is that if you have cortisol pumping around your body on an ongoing basis, one of its jobs is to quickly metabolise or break down fat and carbohydrate to create energy blocks, to help you run away. So in order to keep the fuel tank full, it also stimulates insulin production, which makes you feel hungry, which usually triggers a binge eating episode to give your body the sugar it thinks it needs to run away from the woolly mammoth, or in your case, a bullying boss/mother in law.
When the stressor is over, cortisol continues working by stimulating your appetite AGAIN, because it believes you now need to eat to replace all the used up carb/fat/sugar you needed when you were stressed!
“The problem is that in today’s society, stress-causing situations — such as traffic jams or computer malfunctions — don’t require the body to use up a lot of energy. So, cortisol ends up causing the body to refuel after stress even when it doesn’t really need to refuel. This excess fuel or glucose is converted into fat, resulting in increased storage of fat.
What makes matters worse is that cortisol-induced high levels of insulin also leads to increased production and storage of fat. This means that exposure to chronically high levels of cortisol and cortisol-induced insulin are major main reasons why stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity”.
However, what are you most worried about when you are emotionally eating or binge eating? You are focused on the FOOD and the EATING. And you are beating yourself up because “you have no willpower and you’re so fat and weak and you can never do anything right…..” yada yada yada says your inner critical voice. This is a stressor, and it starts the whole cycle all over again. Very unhelpful!
And if that wasn’t enough, if you are binge eating processed, convenient, high sugar/fat/salt food to comfort yourself, cope with stress and numb out? Then your body is under even more pressure – but this time to try and get any bit of nutrition it can out of the rubbish fuel being put into it – it’s like trying to run a ferrari on green diesel – and this ALSO causes your cortisol levels to increase, because your actual body itself is stressed!
So what can we do when we are constantly stressed, and emotionally eating crap food as a result? Well, what about instead of beating yourself up about not being able to stop emotional eating or binge eating, why not:
LEARN HOW TO MANAGE YOUR STRESS BETTER.
Yep. If you can reduce your stress levels, you’ll reduce your episodes of emotional and binge eating. Not completely, but you will reduce them.
EASY, FREE STRESS REDUCTION STRATEGIES
Meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day has been scientifically proven over and over again to reduce stress and improve health. Free apps like Insight Timer can get you started immediately and are easy to use, you just have to commit to 10 minutes a day, at least 4-5 days a week. You’ll soon notice a difference – regular meditation is not about the meditating itself, it’s about regularly re-setting your ‘anxietyometer’ back to zero, so that when you start getting stressed, you’ll notice that maybe you can breathe yourself back down again, or take a deep breath and make a better choice. And that decision might be to NOT binge.
Relationships also help to keep stress down. Hanging out with people you like, having a laugh or spending time with your pet are all great for reducing stress and increasing your feel good hormone – serotonin.
Nature is wonderful for grounding us and giving our poor brains a break from technology. Just sitting out in the garden or on a balcony, walking or standing barefoot in grass, or simply closing your eyes and listening to a track of nature sounds on you tube will calm your brain down.
Exercise is the best stress buster – and even though your brain (amygdala) might be nagging you to just sit down again, or put the kettle on instead, or ask why on earth you want to go out when it’s so cold/raining/dark outside – remember the worst part of exercise is actually putting on your trainers and walking out the door. And as my sister (who happens to be a fitness instructor) always says: “You never feel worse when you get back” – which is true! Exercise releases endorphins – feel good hormones – into your system, which in turn reduce cortisol levels. So just put on your trainers and walk for 15-20 minutes to give yourself a break from the stress/cortisol. You can do this during your lunchbreak, after work, with a friend, with your audiobook or favourite podcast, but as little as 15-20 minutes a day WILL make a difference to your stress or anxiety levels.
A note here, DO NOT EXERCISE to lose weight. If you tie exercise to weight loss, you will set yourself up to fail again and again. Every time you *don’t* get out for your walk or to the gym, you will tell yourself you have *failed*, and that will set you up to binge as a way of punishing yourself for not exercising.
Always link exercise to feeling better, clearing your head, reducing your stress and improving your health and fitness. NEVER weight loss.
LOW COST, EASY TO START STRATEGIES
Any client who has ever worked with me, and any regular readers of my Facebook page will know I should have shares in Epsom Salts! Having an Epsom salts bath or foot bath 3 times a week, for 20 minutes at least, using a good cup of salts (a measuring cup, an old fashioned teacup or kids juice cup full) will REALLY help to relax you – and you will FEEL it. Full of magnesium, Epsom salts help drain cortisol out of your body. Add 2-3 drops of lavender oil, and you will sleep like a baby that night.
MODERATELY EFFORTFUL STRATEGIES
Take a long, hard look at your week. What are you doing that is not working for you? Where are you not saying NO? What are you doing that you can stop doing? When are you not looking after yourself? Are you constantly working late or bringing work home? Giving up activities you enjoy? Not going to bed early enough? Getting up too early to either get a head start in work, or go to the gym even though you are exhausted? And the biggest one for my emotional eating or binge eating clients – SIMPLY NOT BEING PREPARED FOR DINNER?
Make a plan, cut down or cut out things that do not work. Get more organised about meals – shop in bulk at the weekend. Have the ingredients you need to quickly make a meal or make ahead at weekends and chill/freeze. Use Pinterest for recipes and ‘make ahead’ breakfast and lunch ideas. You get the picture.
SERIOUS STRESS MANAGEMENT
Find a Therapist, a mindfulness class, a yoga class or a life coach and get the help you need to permanently reduce stressors, or reduce your unhelpful reactions to your stressors. For professional support with binge eating disorder, bulimia and emotional eating, contact us. Our ‘Eating Freely ‘Program is the only specialist Binge Eating Disorder Program in Ireland that combines professional psychotherapy AND Nutritional Therapy, effectively teaching you how to break free from emotional eating and binge eating – forever.
Sometimes we are trying to tackle the wrong problem. The problem is not always just what you are eating, it is WHY you are eating. And when it is emotional eating or binge eating…. it’s about stress, emotions and long term unhelpful coping strategies like binge eating. That’s when you need professional support.