In the past four months, I’ve gained a bit of weight. It came as a surprise because while at home for the first time 10 months of the panorama, I lost weight. But when I weighed myself this past week, I’m back to my pre-pandora’s box weight.
After initially blaming my weight gain on a ghost that must be feeding me while I sleep, I had to have a real conversation with myself about what’s going on. The reality is I’m stressed out. My job is threatening to make me come back to the office, people are running around unvaccinated without masks, and the New York Public Library is still limiting the number of ebooks I can borrow or place a hold on to 3. I can’t deal.
Researchers have long linked increased stress (or more precisely, a rise in the stress hormone cortisol) with weight gain. That’s because when you’re stressed out, your adrenal glands release adrenaline, cortisol, and glucose into your bloodstream to give you the energy to get away from whatever is stressing you out.
That works great if the thing stressing you out is a bear, but not so much when your stressor is a persistent fear of watercooler conversations about “The Bachelor”. So your body is in a constant state of “fight or flight” response and it’s in need of quick energy. Before you know it you’ve eaten a box of Girl Scout cookies. Your body stores that sugar, usually in the form of abdominal fat, which is hard to get rid of.
Stress doesn’t just affect your weight. When your body goes into the fight-or-flight response, it can also affect your digestive system — causing bloating, indigestion due to increased stomach acids, and diarrhea or constipation. If you have existing conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), stress can exacerbate the condition.
How to combat stress-related weight gain and digestive problems
Here’s the great news — stress is manageable. Even better news, if you do a combination of activities that you enjoy to manage the stress that is healthy and probably already a part of your life.
Exercising regularly. If you’re a fan of The Fit In, exercise is probably already a part of your life. Physical activity is a great tension reliever. When you work out you release endorphins, which are your body’s natural painkillers. You might notice when you work out, you sleep better. Sleep is really important for stress management. Also working out helps improve digestion.
Also, working out can train your body to cope with stress. During a strenuous workout, your body imitates fight-or-flight, prompting your body to release adrenaline, which gets your heart pumping. Scientists have found that that surge of adrenaline sends a chemical message to cells in the muscles to strengthen them over time. By becoming stronger, your body develops a level of stress resistance.
Incorporate meditation. Meditating helps us quiet our minds and restore calm. It’s a way to connect with what is going on with your body and your mind. You don’t need to sit criss-cross applesauce for an hour each day to meditate. You can do it when you’re walking, doing dishes, or in the middle of one of those terrible watercooler conversations. There are several ways to meditate, the key to meditation is to find a method that works for you and your lifestyle.
Eat healthy, stress-relieving foods. It’s OK to eat the box of Girl Scout cookies every once in a while. But when you're stressed, it’s important to give your body the foods it needs to repair. Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon), magnesium (almonds), and vitamin C (oranges, not orange juice) have been found to reduce stress and anxiety levels.
Add glutamine to your diet. Glutamine is an amino acid, which is a building block for proteins. Glutamine fuels immune and intestinal cells, and is important in fighting off harmful bacteria and counteracting muscle breakdown. Your body naturally produces glutamine but increased cortisol due to stress depletes your glutamine. Glutamine is present in certain foods like eggs and corn, but the exact glutamine contents in many foods haven’t been studied. Adding a glutamine supplement to your diet can help fill in some of the gaps. Glutamine is a key ingredient in our Making Moves digestion supplement.
- Talk to a professional. If you’re struggling to cope with stress, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor. If you believe stress is having a negative effect on your digestive health, go see a gastroenterologist to discuss treatment options or if something more serious is going on. Also, consider speaking to a therapist. Therapists are trained to teach us coping methods for when we’re stressed out. Studies have shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy, a technique that helps you learn to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, was effective in improving the quality of life in patients with inflammatory bowel disease.