Are we stressing ourselves fat?
by Maya Maymon (Brosnan) on Mar 14, 2023
Naturopathic Nutritionist, Fitness & Yoga teacher
In this evolving, fast-paced world, we seem to associate stress with mental health related conditions such as insomnia, anxiety and depression. But what if I told you that prolonged, unresolved stress can not only leave you sleep deprived and anxious, but also cause excessive weight gain as well as make losing weight nearly impossible?
Working as a naturopathic nutritionist and iridologist for over 15 years, I have treated many patients with a multitude of health conditions and health related concerns. What I have noticed over the years is the direct correlation between stubborn kilos which will not shift and prolonged, unresolved stress. I have had many weight loss clients trying every diet on the market, the keto diet, the low fat diet, the intermittent fasting diet, you name it! These 'diet die hards' severely restricted their calories, exercised excessively (I'm talking boot camps and intense cardio), with very small weight loss rewards compared to the physical activity input and calorie restriction they implemented. The pure, gut wrenching, devastation they faced every time they went on the scales, as the kilos were stuck in the same position, was absolutely devastating. That's exactly where I stepped in and began taking a broader view of their lives; I looked at not just what they ate and drank but also their family life, work/life balance, their daily challenges, struggles, past trauma, their fitness levels as well as pre-existing conditions which may have halted their progress.
'Losing weight is not pure black and white when your nervous system is out of whack"
The 'calories in - calories out' theory (meaning eat less calories than the calories you burn through sustaining metabolic processes and exercise) works perfectly in a perfect world. A world in which we are financially free, have no family and work commitments and deadlines, no news to watch, no cars to drive and the list goes on. The problem we seem to be facing these days stems from the fact our adrenal glands are over worked and so is our Sympathetic Nervous System.
Fight or Flight on Steroids
The Fight or Flight response has been around for thousands of years. It was designed to keep us safe during life threatening situations so we can either fight the supposed predator (a wild animal for example) or stand up and physically fight it. The hormones released via the adrenal glands (initially adrenaline and later cortisol) are meant to prompt circulation and nutrient flow to our arms, legs and brain in order to help us stay alive. The problem is that these days, the stressors we are facing are not necessarily physical. It may be a deadline, it may be an argument, a relationship issue, or an idiot that cut you off on the highway! This continuous exposure to stress is creating a Sympathetic Nervous System dominance as our bodies, which are extremely good at being efficient and keeping us alive, are in a state of constant alert as they are convinced, we are in physical danger. Being in this state, our bodies then store a lot of our fat as backup energy, just in case famine is around the corner!
So how come exercise doesn‚Äôt shift the weight?
Working in the Fitness industry for well over 20 years now, I thoroughly support regular exercise. I would be the last person to try and turn people away from this healthy habit. Exercise can also be one of the best things we can do to help combat stress. Not to mention the other gazillion health benefits we all are very well aware of (prevent diabetes, prevent Alzheimer's disease, improve cardiovascular health, just to name a few). And we all know, it can also push our bodies that 20% further when we want to lose weight.
But this is also exactly where we need to be careful.
Our bodies only use the one biological response as they are presented with any stressful stimuli. In other words, additional physical stress can add onto the residual stress our bodies are already under due to emotional and mental challenges we face every single day. That's when you notice that the harder you train, the more resistant to exercise your body becomes, and the less physical improvements you can notice.
Do less to lose more weight?
Yes, exactly. That's a fantastic place to start.
Firstly, unlike what we have been taught all our lives, we do actually need to 'do less' so that we stop overwhelming our very delicate nervous system. Just by going on a diet alone, we are already in a state of high alert, which adds just another set of problems onto our full plate of overwhelming stress. 'Count calories, weigh your food, don't eat carbs, don't eat after 4pm - we are doomed to fail before we even begin. Sticking to a strict regime is highly demanding and keeps our sympathetic nervous system highly active, which is exactly what we don't want. What we do want is to activate our Parasympathetic Nervous System, the part of our nervous system which turns everything down (our blood pressure, heart rate, circulation) telling us our environment is now safe and we can safely use our fat stores for energy as there is no famine anywhere in sight.
And, of course, we do need to look closely at the types of foods we eat and how much we eat. We need to eat more natural, wholesome foods, more foods that come from the ground and that haven't been messed with (just like I explain in my book 'KIS and Lose Weight'). The moment we make a commitment to living a healthy, wholesome life, the moment we stop making weight loss our mission, is exactly the moment we remove stress from the equation as we start to work with our bodies and not against them, making weight loss simply a very welcome side effect of living a wholesome, more balanced life, physically, mentally and emotionally.