The Weight Series: Tips on how to combat stress-induced weight gain

Melbourne-based menopause specialist Dr Khan has kindly let us share her Weight Series. This is the third story in the series. In the first instalment she talks about the importance of only eating during certain hours, and followed up with how declining oestrogen levels can impact weight gain. 

Dr Khan
Menopause Specialist Dr Khan

The stress hormone cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands in response to exercising, acute stress and waking up in the morning. Short-term exposure to cortisol is safe and helps us survive.

However, in modern day lives here being stuck in traffic, school runs, long working hours or relationship conflict, all trigger the same ‘flight or fight’ response that would be triggered when we face a real threat – such as running away from a tiger.

Our brain cannot detect the difference between a real threat and life stress, therefore it releases a cascade of chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol activating the sympathetic nervous system which prepared the body for survival by diverting bloody away from your gut, immune system and to your essential organs for short-term survival.

It stimulates your liver to release sugar for extra energy preparing your muscles to run. Once the ‘threat’ is over, in this case a stressful day at work, we would spend the evening on a couch rather than burning off the extra energy – sugar.

To remove the sugar from the blood stream, a hormone called insulin is released. Insulin is a fat storage hormone which deposits fat around the abdomen.

Chronic stress can make the cells insulin resistant with elevated blood levels of sugar leading to diabetes and other chronic illnesses such as heart disease, etc. Chronic stress makes us crave foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

This is why the mind-body connection is important. Any form of psychological stress has an impact on your physical wellbeing.

Since cortisol triggers ‘flight or fight’, the sympathetic nervous system, we need to oppose the effects by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for rest and repair. It strengthens the immune system, prevents against long term disease and allows us to enjoy the present moment.

Ways to combat stress and weight:

  • Journaling – will allow you to become aware of your thoughts, feelings and triggers.
  • Practicing gratitude – rewires your mind to be optimistic and changes your mindset.
  • Meditation – this can be challenging for some but there are lots of different types.
  • Deep abdominal breathing – this stimulates the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic system.
  • Eating mindfully – paying attention to how you are feeling when you crave certain foods.
  • Enjoyable activity or hobby-singing – playing an instrument, knitting, reading.
  • Nature walks – just 20 minutes of exposure to nature significantly brings down cortisol.
  • Exercise – restorative yoga, Pilates, HITT, weight training, swimming.

Melbourne-based Dr Fatima Khan is highly skilled and experienced menopause specialist who genuinely cares about our hormonal health.