Stress affects people in many different ways but did you know that living in a chronic state of “fight or flight” can cause your waistline to expand?

You see our stress response was designed perfectly for “back in the day” when our ancestors were coming head to head with hungry tigers!  But these days most stresses neither require us to run or fight.

Any stressful situation will trigger the adrenal glands to pour out stress hormones; for short-term stress both adrenaline and cortisol will be secreted.  If the stress continues then cortisol will remain elevated and it is this that can cause havoc with weight management.

Cortisol is produced in a daily cycle and is a key driver of our circadian rhythm.  Problems related to disruption of this rhythm include fatigue, infection, low sex drive/sex hormone imbalances, headaches, skin problems, digestive discomfort and elevated blood pressure.

One extremely important action of cortisol is to respond to low blood sugar levels; a dramatic drop in blood sugar will trigger a surge of cortisol to mobilise sugar that is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. This results in an increased level of circulating glucose, providing energy to run or fight.  However, as most of this glucose will not be needed for sedentary, day-to-day stresses, it gets converted to fat and dumped; typically this will be around your middle – a fat distribution pattern known as central adiposity.

Skipping meals and eating late can cause a drop in blood sugar during the night.  When this happens your heart rate will increase and other “fight or flight” mechanisms will kick-in so you wake up feeling hot, sweaty and restless.  It will also be difficult to get back to sleep after this disturbance because you’ve become wired and ready for action!  So you see, cortisol imbalances can also seriously disrupt your sleep.

Of course, lack of sleep will make you more susceptible to feeling stressed and, bizarrely, can also lead to cravings for fattening foods and drinks, especially alcohol, sugar, fat and salt. This is why many people struggle to lose weight or even gain weight despite watching their calorie intake. And, even worse, “knee-jerk” severe calorie restriction will simply create more physiological stress – a real vicious cycle!

But, worst of all, cortisol is not just responsive to stress; sugar, alcohol, refined grains and processed foods – i.e. all the things you crave when you’re stressed – can all raise levels too.  Plus just one strong coffee can increase blood cortisol levels by 25% in an hour. Using stimulants to get us through stressful situation may give us short term energy but longer term they rapidly perpetuate a downward spiral.

As most of us are not able to remove stress from our lives, reducing foods that stimulate cortisol release is one of the best ways to reduce stress hormone levels and beat the bulge!

Want to know more – click here to download Stages of Stress Explained.