You count calories, follow the latest internet advice and maybe even have a personal trainer. But you still can’t lose weight?
You might have lost a couple of kilos, but you can’t budge that chubby tummy that has crept up on you over the years? Sound familiar? If so it could be stress that’s causing the problem, and strange as it might seem, boot camp and strenuous exercise might just be compounding the problem.
Fight or flight
You’ve heard about the fight or flight response. It was crucial in keeping our ancestors alive when they hunted big, dangerous animals and tried to evade even bigger and more dangerous ones. Fight or flight is still crucial today, especially if you are in a life-threatening situation, but thankfully, such moments of acute stress are quite rare these days. The major problem facing us now is chronic, low-level, relentless stress.
Acute stress and chronic stress
The key thing to remember is that fight or flight can’t distinguish between short bouts of acute stress and long-term chronic stress. Whether you are being chased by a wild animal, stuck in traffic or worrying about your finances, love life or children’s well-being, fight or flight still kicks in. Not sudden or intense, but the negative effects last much longer.
Is adrenal fatigue making you “fit and fat”?
The stress response is controlled by your brain, specifically the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, working with your adrenal glands. When your brain detects a threat, it sends a message straight to your adrenal glands, which in a split-second releases a flood of stress hormones, notably, cortisol. This gets pumped around your body, pepping your system so you can either fight hard or run fast.
And that’s where the problem lies. Modern stresses, like being late for a meeting or facing a deadline, still provoke the same fight of flight response -only on a lesser level and over a far longer period of time. It’s the long-lasting waves of stress that are the problem, and fight or flight is not suited to deal with constant stress.
In fact, unless you are aware of it and take steps to address it, it also works against your efforts to lose fat, especially fat around your middle.
How “fight or flight” works
In a normal fight or flight response stress hormones cause your liver and muscles to release their stores of glucose. This is completely fine, IF your body is allowed a period of rest afterwards. On the other hand, chronic stress, without the possibility of recuperation, is unhealthy because fat is spared and more amino acids are taken from muscle tissue instead. To make matters worse, since chronic stress goes on for longer, your body can’t benefit from testosterone and other repairing hormones because you haven’t done enough physical activity to trigger their release.
It’s a vicious circle
Chronic stress without physical activity causes a sharp rise in cortisol levels, which increase hunger and cravings for high calorie foods. And since cortisol is a catabolic hormone, it can cause muscle tissue to be lost from your arms and legs, and fat to be stored in your abdomen, which is a very unhealthy, since belly fat, and even worse, visceral fat (the kind that is stored around the organs of your abdomen) is linked to heart disease and high levels of insulin that cause the build-up of more visceral fat.
How to beat stress fat
- Never miss breakfast and make sure it contains some sort of protein. Cortisol levels rise if you don’t eat first thing, and protein stimulates hormones such as testosterone and Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which help counter the effects of cortisol. Protein also makes you feel fuller for longer and prevents the spikes of glucose in your blood causes by a high-carbohydrate breakfast such as processed breakfast cereal, white bread and even a big bowl of fruit. It doesn’t have to be animal protein; hemp protein in your morning smoothie or almond butter to a whole grain cracker will suffice. Eggs and spinach are another good option.
- Do two intensive interval sessions per week, either sprints or intervals of up to three minutes. If you want to do longer intervals sessions or a longer ride, do a few sprints at the beginning as part of your warm up. This will boost your levels of cortisol-busting hormones.
- Walk! Don’t let your workouts stress you. Go for a walk at lunchtime instead of squeezing in another training session. Learn to relax by making walking part of your daily life. If you do work out, make sure to drink a protein smoothie 30 minutes before and then rest straight after.
- Sleep! Try to get seven to eight hours of good quality sleep per night. It won’t always happen, but make it your aim. HGH secretion is highest just after you fall asleep, so if it’s possible to take a daytime nap it will give you an HGH double shot. Console yourself with the thought that if you have to get up in the middle of the night to attend to a restless baby, as soon as you drift off the HGH comes on again.
- Eat some form of protein at every meal and snack and split your day’s total calories over five, instead of three meals, so long as they are fairly equally spaced. And eat slowly and mindfully.
- Eat chocolate! As long as it’s the pure and dark kind. Raw cacao decreases the food cravings stress induces, so a cup of cocoa made with almond or soy milk or a few squares of 85% per cent cocoa chocolate is guilt-free medicine in this case.
And why not try this stress-busting smoothie?
Berry Blast Smoothie
1 cup frozen berries
1 tablespoon milled flaxseeds or use hemp seeds
1 cup coconut water
1/2 peeled orange
A few fresh mint leaves
Add all ingredients to the blender and whizz for about 40 seconds. You won’t get a totally smooth consistency because of the berries and orange.
You could also add an avocado for a creamier, thicker consistency. For extra sweetness add a dash of maple syrup.
Clever tip: Add a teaspoon of hemp powder (or your favourite protein powder for an extra stress-busting boost!