What If This 1 Fixable Thing Is Keeping You Overweight?
With festive foods now settled on hips and thighs and the new year whirring into action, many of our patients have asked us…
“How can I make 2019 the year that I finally and permanently shed these excess pounds?”
It’s a great question! And the kind we love to answer. Because to achieve success, you must ask the questions that matter: the ones that get to the cause.
While diet and exercise and the ‘calories in, calories out’ mantra have bestowed the undeserved guilt that has propped up a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry, losing excess fat is not a matter of arithmetic. We humans are infinitely more wonderful and complex than that. Even when weight gain occurs, the body is simply doing what it has been designed to do: to protect you.
I’ll explain in a moment. But first, rather than command you eat X number of calories and walk Y number of steps, let’s look at a common reason that causes weight gain and keeps it stubbornly harnessed to your chassis: stress. Then I’ll share the proven ways to calm your worry and loosen fat’s grip allowing you to gain a slimmer, healthier silhouette.
Stress and Weight Gain: From Acute to Chronic Stress
The blueprint for the remarkable human body was designed eons ago, in part, to aid our survival. Back when fearsome animals and ferocious tribal neighbors could attack, unsuspected, the virtually instant hormonal transformation that provided the requirements to fight, flee or freeze could be life saving. Once the immediate threat had passed, the body reset itself to a lower, manageable gear which saved sufficient energy for healing and health. Attack was sporadic and this gave us time to recover.
In modern times, however, dangerous acute situations are far and few between. Instead, what begins as short-term morphs into chronic…
A high pressure work day could be handled for 24 hours, but we remain entrenched for years…
Money strains change from one late bill to constant debt…
Instead of a commitment to one single task, done well, we face a multitude of chores each competing for our immediate attention…
Haunting news stories have moved from a newspaper whose pages we could close to hordes of shouting pieces coming at us from the television, internet, radio, even our smart phones…
It can seem there is nowhere to escape. With this incessant onslaught, the body never climbs down from its stress peak into a quiet place where it can recover. The acute stress becomes dangerously chronic. And, yes, it can make us fat.
The Stress Cycle: How Stress Hormones Contribute to Stubborn Weight Gain
Once a sound, smell, visual cue, or other signal is confirmed as a threat, the brain’s alarm bells ring. The limbic system, often referred to as the reptilian brain because it is older, deeper and unthinking, sets off a cascade of events to heighten the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is our fight, flight or freeze system.
The limbic system shouts out to adrenal medulla, “Release the epinephrine and norepinephrine, we’re under attack!”
It barks orders at the hypothalamus in the brain, “Tell the pituitary gland to notify the adrenal cortex, we need cortisol!”
And the effects of these changes? All resources are poured into self-preservation. Life saving functions are elevated while non-priority activities, like those of digestion and the reproductive system, are down regulated.
Insulin sensitivity (1) drops to enable extra sugar to course through our blood. Short term, this provides the ample energy needed to feed our muscles.
Long term, though?
Initially, insulin levels ramp up. Sugar is a sticky substance the body needs to move from the blood and into the relative safety of the cells before it does any damage. With one hand, insulin knocks on cell doors, with the other, it holds sugar, ready to guide it through.
But after a time, just like any unwanted visitor constantly tap tapping, the cells refuse to regularly answer their doors. And the pancreas, the organ frantically engaged with insulin production, can wear out like well-used car engine. This leaves excess sugar flowing around the body. The combination can trigger pre-diabetes, or the full blown version, and adds extra body fat especially to our mid-section.
Appetite may become elevated. (2) This makes sense considering an increased perceived need for energy to fight or flee. Unsurprisingly, the preference is for sweet food: a fast and easy to digest source of energy. As cortisol rises so, too, does the habit of eating after stress. Plus, chronic stress can cause a negative mood, which further increases calorie intake.
This increased appetite is the perfect recipe for weight gain.
Cortisol elevates to deliver the changes required for survival, including those you consciously experience when you get a fright. Your heart starts to pound, beating faster and harder. Your breathing rate elevates. You get an instant hit of energy. These short term benefits allow you to fight or run.
Long term, though, as with the other changes stress brings, the weight consequences can be dire. This hormone can move fat from other storage areas and place it in the visceral, or tummy, area. Yes, this creates a stubborn muffin top and dangerous belly fat. Cortisol also encourages baby fat cells (adipocytes) to mature into full fledged adipocytes. (3)
Leptin is a commonly misunderstood hormone also involved in the stress response. As cortisol elevates, it drives adipose tissue to produce and secrete more leptin. (4) In acute stress, this mobilizes fat stores and triggers fatty acids oxidization to boost available energy. (5)
In health, leptin is secreted by fat tissue to say, “Hey! I’m full! Stop eating and go do some exercise,” (6) But, like insulin, its constant secretion leads to cells that no longer easily respond. This is termed leptin resistance. And unfortunately, when we carry greater amounts of body fat, leptin sensitivity drops further and along with it, feelings of fullness. What a vicious cycle!
Ghrelin is the final weight related hormone we need to discuss as it adds the grrrr to a grumbling tummy. In acute stress, ghrelin secretion increases. (7) This elevates our appetite. While this doesn’t help our waistline it, too, ensures we have enough energy to face an immediate threat. But its fingers reach further into chronic stress…
As stress refuses to abate, behavioral changes like a drop in sleep quality occur. This lowers leptin and elevates ghrelin levels. (8) It’s one of the reasons why people who sleep less than eight hours per night have an increased body mass index (BMI). As you can imagine, increased levels of another hormone that causes hunger is an important player in the weight gain game.
Can you see why the ‘calories in, calories out’ mantra is deeply flawed and dangerously inaccurate? If you don’t holistically address this complex stress: weight gain cycle you won’t be able to lose excess pounds and you certainly won’t be able to keep them off.
And the kicker?
Following a strict diet could be inadvertently triggering the hormones that keep you fat. As the study Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index noted “Decreased leptin and increased ghrelin… have also been observed in reaction to food restriction… and are typically associated with increased appetite.”
How Can You Break This Stress – Weight – Gain Cycle?
Like a pilot planning a long haul flight, in order to arrive at the desired location you must both know your starting point and your location. This is why targeted testing such as what we do in our office is crucial.
Important tests for weight loss include hormones like cortisol and insulin, as already discussed, and melatonin (also known as the ‘sleep hormone’). Other hormonal tests may be relevant for you, but as with all targeted therapies, this will depend on your personal health needs.
Great! Now you have your baseline; you know your starting point. The below approaches will help you plot a course to your weight loss destination. Like a pilot, make sure you also track and monitor your progress.
Lifestyle Modifications for Weight Loss
Successful, permanent weight loss requires a complex and thoughtful approach. Here are the methods we use and encourage in our clinic.
The correct food plan is a crucial part of the weight loss puzzle but not in the way you’ve likely been taught. See, we literally are what we eat. The produce we consume provides the body’s building blocks and the nutrients needed to make it run… and to successfully shed weight. For example, the minerals, chromium and magnesium, and omega 3 fats are required for healthy insulin function. A weight loss food plan needs to be nutrient rich and tailored to your needs.
Still think you should be on a ‘diet’?
When we focus on simply ‘eating less and exercising more’ we create additional psychological and physical stress that worsens the cycle above. We lose the will to exercise and with it our fat burning muscle mass and metabolism. Ever wondered why your weight has yo-yo-ed? Yes, this is likely the answer.
We also create an unhealthy relationship with the food that sustains us and the very act of eating can trigger emotional strain.
So, Back to Food…
Focus on whole foods.
Eat vegetables, fresh fruit (especially gorgeous berries), healthy proteins like wild caught fish, organic chicken and free range eggs. Add herbs and spices for their delicious taste and therapeutic properties. (Did you know that cinnamon has been shown to improve blood sugar levels?)
Avoid junk food, processed products, and produce that offers little in the way of nutrition.
Avoid dietary options that contain artificial sweeteners. These have been shown to change the microbiome of the gut and this in itself can cause metabolic trouble (9) and so potentially weight gain.
A successful weight loss food plan includes ample macro and micro nutrients and eliminates harmful products that strip nutrients from the body (called anti-nutrients) or offers calories without benefit.
Then there’s the important question of when to eat…
Intermittent fasting has helped many of our patients gain fat loss results where many other approaches have failed.
Often the best piece of exercise advice is to do something you love. Why? Because you are far more likely to stick to it.
Walking and swimming are perfect for those with joint pain…
Resistance training is wonderful for the added muscle mass it delivers, along with the increased insulin sensitivity and ability to burn excess energy…
Dancing, jogging, or rowing work if they are your thing…
High intensity interval training has been shown to enhance insulin sensitivity and fat loss within mere weeks.
Or you might opt for a gentle form of exercise that ties in emotional calm with movement…
We love Yoga! This ancient holistic practice does wonders for the body and mind. As the journal article Yoga in the Management of Overweight and Obesity states, this practice may aid weight loss due to the “energy expenditure during yoga sessions… heightening mindfulness, improving mood, and reducing stress, which may help reduce food intake; and… allowing individuals to feel more connected to their bodies, leading to enhanced awareness of satiety and the discomfort of overeating.”
The practice of meditation has become popular because of its transformative ability. By simply focusing on breath, body, or an item you can bring calm, clarity and, yes, weight loss. (10) There is a wonderful free app called Insight Timer that we use with our patients and recommend to you.
Support From Friends and Family
Weight loss is like any worthwhile undertaking. It requires grit and determination. It also comes with varied challenges, ups and downs. This is when the loving support of family and friends can help. Involve them in your journey and your why. Reach out when you need strength. And when the question ‘do I want to keep going’ invariably pops into your head, remember: ‘This, too, shall pass’.
Change your mindset
Weight loss should never be about absolute abstinence and deprivation. It is about getting and staying well and living your very best life. This can require a mindset shift. And while you are tinkering inside your noggin, remember that deprivation only achieves one thing: A perceived slip and a guilt-ridden dive into the nearest Oreo pie.
To change your mindset:
— Write down why you want to lose weight.
No, not just to reach a certain number. Think about this deeply. What will achieving this goal do for you? How will it liberate, add to, positively alter your life?
— How can you change your view of food to a love, love rather than a love, hate relationship?
— How can YOU be the master or mistress of your fate? The leader rather than a cowering follower? The proactive rather than the simply being pushed along? You need to own your transformation and with that will come the power to change. Yes, this can be scary!
Acknowledge Stress and Let It Go
As Nathaniel Branden said, awareness is the first step to change. Yet so often we don’t realize the amount of stress we are under. So much so that health professionals have a term for this: allostasis. This term was coined in 1988 by P. Sterling and J. Eyer and refers to “achieving stability through change”. It is easier to describe this with a stark example…
A couple has four children. The father passes away. (stress 1) The mother continues to grieve but she has children to care for so life goes on. With only one income the bills mount (stress 2) so they move house. (stress 3) The children change schools and Mom guides them through (stress 4) while searching for a higher paying job. (stress 5)…
As each stress occurs, she sufferers the initial acute awareness. Her body does its best to adapt to the new situation. It alters her set points and she goes on. While she may not even feel that stressed, her internal workings are far removed from where they once were and from the healthy range.
While this example is extreme, many people – maybe you – live with hormones that have shifted from their healthy range. As you’ve discovered within this article, this could be the reason why you’ve gained weight and can’t shift it. Yet, until you’ve acknowledged this stress it will remain hidden, unable to be released.
Appropriate testing will help to identify how stress is impacting on your health and acknowledgement, acceptance and appropriate approaches like meditation and holistic lifestyle choices will help you let it go.
And on that note, let’s take a look at natural, profound ways to reduce stress (some you might not have considered)…
One of the reasons our patients love Chiropractic care is its powerful ability to calm stress. See our spine is divided not just into segments but also into systems: the sympathetic (SNS) and the para-sympathetic (PNS). Remember earlier in this article how we described the SNS as our fight, flight or freeze system? Well, as we crane over desktops and look down to play with our phones, sleep on our tummies and endlessly stare at our screens, we jam up our necks. But it gets worse… When burdened with stress so, too, are our shoulder and neck muscles, and our vertebrae, their facet joints and the nervous system tissues that run through them. You may be aware of the tightness, pain, stress headaches? Or the biological stress may lurk silently. And as your spine joints jam and your muscles clench, it ramps up your SNS. This is where Chiropractic care comes to the fore.
See, cervical adjustments may boost parasympathetic (relaxation) responses (11) to help your body and mind find relief and release. It’s no wonder that restoring correct cervical spinal motion can make you feel so good in terms of reduced pain, eased tension, reduced headaches and lowered stress!
Massage therapy has been around for time immemorial, with records stretching back an astounding 4000 years! Recent research has revealed this modality can alter our biology in a variety of ways: dilating blood vessels, increasing whole body relaxation, improving lymphatic and venous circulation, and enhancing healing. But there is another crucial benefit: its ability to ease emotional and mental stress. (12) Even in high stress occupations like emergency nursing, massages’ stress-relieving effects are palpable.
Achieving Sufficient Sleep
If insufficient sleep is an issue for you, these 7 tips will aid a restful slumber:
1) Avoid blue light for at least 90 minutes before bed (that includes your television, laptop, and smart phone)
2) Quit caffeine in the afternoons and evenings
3) Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark, safe and comfortably cool
4) Your mattress and pillow should be supportive and soothing
5) Set a regular wake time
6) Avoid news, emails and confronting or stressful information prior to sleep
7) Turn off all notifications that could wake you from those precious zzz’s (even better, keep your computer and phone out of the bedroom!)
This ancient therapy is well loved for a reason: it works! Acupuncture has been shown to reduce the perception of stress (13), to regulate happy hormones, to create a shift toward the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the SNS) and so boost our relaxation response (14) and it may even directly assist in weight loss. (15)
Sometimes, especially in the first part of any dietary change or when facing greater stress, it helps to know what will aid appetite control. These 5 evidence-based strategies have worked for many of our patients and will likely work for you.
1) At all meals and when feeling hungry, consume a serving of healthy fat or protein as it triggers the feeling of fullness. A boiled egg, a handful of nuts, a small serve of yogurt work well.
2) If you experience cravings for sweet food, including chocolate, go for a 10-minute walk first. Often the desire simply dissipates.
3) Focus on mindful eating at meals. This will slow the rate and lower the amount of food you consume.
4) Drink ample water over the day and then before a meal.
5) Meditate. Remember that stress triggers eating so meditation may control your appetite.
With heightened stress it can be difficult to achieve the nutrient levels required to repair, recover and less excess fat melt away. Why? Because we chew through them too quickly. Add to this the poor food habits and gut function we see so commonly in our clinic and nutritional support is often the right and needed approach.
As you can see, there is far more to successfully losing weight than the simple calories in, calories out equation. In fact, when you are already under stress this manta may be doing you more harm than good. It is crucial to look at slimming like the puzzle it is. Find and fit the missing pieces and stop the self-sabotage and guilt-driven behaviors. Here’s to you: For an amazing 2019! We look forward to helping you achieve the body – and life — of your dreams!
Meet Shannon Ford OT/L, IMP-2M, a functional medicine expert passionate about helping people achieve optimal health and wellness. With over ten years of experience in the field, Shannon has dedicated her career to understanding the underlying causes of chronic diseases and finding personalized solutions for her patients. Her approach focuses on treating the whole person rather than just the symptoms, using a combination of nutrition, lifestyle changes, and cutting-edge medical technologies. Through her work, Shannon OT/L, IMP-2M has helped countless individuals regain their health and vitality, and she is committed to continuing her mission to empower people to live their best lives.