I don't know one person who likes to feel "stressed out".
We're constantly told we should reduce our stress, but it's rare that anyone actually takes the time to explain why. Not to mention reducing stress is easier said than done, am I right?
But did you know it could be wreaking havoc on your blood sugar and sabotaging your weight loss goals?
In fact, it can easily cause an increase of 10-20 mg/dL which is a big deal for someone with prediabetes or high risk for type 2 diabetes. It's also been shown that your blood sugar levels can take up to 6 times longer to return to normal when you're stressed.
lack of sleep/broken sleep
major life changes
running behind schedule
important meetings or presentations
The Stress Response
The stress response is absolutely necessary and will save your life. However, as we've evolved, so have our stressors. The majority of our stress used to be physical (running from tigers) and now it's mental.
In the case of acute stress (aka running from the tiger) your body will release adrenaline. If you've ever had a close call in traffic or were startled walking to your car at night you know exactly what I'm talking about.
The release of adrenaline speeds up your heart rate, dumps glucose into your blood stream to fuel your muscles, diverts blood flow away from your digestive system to ensure you're getting the glucose and oxygen to your arms and legs so you can run and fight, and even improves your vision so you can see better in the dark. Pretty darn important...and impressive if you ask me.
This is just the beginning of the hormonal cascade that happens when your body perceives stress.
Acute vs. Chronic
So if the stress response saves lives why are we always told stress if harmful to our health?
It's critical in acute situations like running from an attacker. However, when you are chronically stressed it's a much different story.
Have you ever heard the saying...when it rains it pours?
Often times when I talk to clients about the stresses in their life it's never just one thing. Even if it starts as one thing it quickly multiplies.
Say you have an important presentation at work. You might not sleep well the night before, that causes you to wake up late so you skip breakfast and leave the house late, then you hit traffic. Your stress level is now an 8 out of 10 and it's only 8am.
Unfortunately, this is every morning for many people.
Maybe your week looks like this. Your child causes you to run late on Monday, then you get stuck in traffic due to an accident on Tuesday, you have an important deadline on Wednesday, you have to leave work early Thursday to be at your kids sporting event, and your refrigerator quits on Friday. All week you've struggled to get enough sleep and haven't had time for breakfast.
This is real life.
This is chronic stress.
This doesn't even include the big events like an illness or surgery, moving, changing jobs, or sleep apnea. We are just living our day-to-day life in a state of stress and believe it's just adulting.
The Vicious Cycle
Here's the deal. We've talked about the release of adrenaline. This is the body's quick response to stress. However, your body is designed to reload so that it can be ready for the next big life threatening event.
In order to reload, your body releases cortisol. This hormone triggers the release insulin so that glucose can be shuttled into the muscle cells to be refueled and ready should you need to sprint from another tiger.
The release of cortisol makes you crave sugar and carbohydrates. It's a signal to the body that you need glucose and carbs are the macronutrient that will supply your body with glucose. In case you didn't already know this...your body is really smart.
Unfortunately, if you didn't need to run from a tiger you don't really need more glucose. The glucose released from your liver (when adrenaline was released) is still floating around in your blood stream. Any excess glucose you consumed will now be stored in your fat cells. And not just any fat cell.
Cortisol likes to direct the storage to the fat cells around the middle. Unfortunately, excess belly fat is inflammatory and leads to another hormonal cascade. This one impacts leptin and its job is to tell you when you're full. If you're not getting that signal, you're eating in excess of your body's needs and storing more body fat.
And to add fuel to the fire, every time your body releases glucose or you eat carbs your body releases insulin. When we are chronically stressed and in the viscous cycle every day we are releasing large amounts of insulin. As your insulin increases and your blood sugar decreases, your body begins to crave carbs. (Blood sugar dysregulation is its own viscous cycle. And no one manages stress well when they're hangry.)
Insulins job is to move glucose out of the blood stream and into the cells. It tops off the liver and muscle storage and then stores the remainder in the fat cells. Large amounts of insulin being released contributes to weight gain, but also leads to insulin resistance.
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How To Manage Stress
There are many stressors listed above that are outside of our control. The fact is, despite your best efforts, you will not be able to live stress-free 100% of the time. In some cases, you will not be able to reduce it and instead need to focus on managing it.
You need a plan.
Step 1: Get more sleep/better quality sleep - The fact is, you handle stress better when you're not exhausted. Start here.
If you snore, have your doctor assess you for sleep apnea.
Set a timer for yourself to trigger your bedtime routine.
Meditate before bed to wind down.
Diffuse essential oils.
Turn off screens and dim the lights 1-2 hours before bedtime.
There are many, many options that can improve your sleep.
Step 2: Find a go-to stress buster - Read this article for some quick ideas. 7 Ways to Reduce Stress in 5 Minutes or Less
Step 3: Supplementation - A few of my favorites are listed below.
There are many more supplements available, but recommendations require a more customized approach.
Always consult your trusted medical practitioner before
If you're struggling with weight gain and/or blood sugar dysregulation, assess your stress levels. Despite your best efforts with diet and exercise, stress will supersede.
You can't always remove the stressor, but adding tools to your toolbox can help you manage the stress in your life.
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