Angela was desperate to lose weight. Over the past six months she’d noticed her weight going up but couldn’t figure out why. As far as Angela could tell, she was eating the same things she always had. Her activity level hadn’t changed. So she came to see me, her family doctor, asking to get her hormones checked, thinking maybe that was the problem.
I checked her hormones and a few other things besides. Everything came back normal. We began to peel back the layers and talk about what else had been going on over the past six months.
It turned out Angela had been going through a pretty rough time. She’d been given some added responsibilities at work, and she had also been going through a contentious divorce.
“Sure, occasionally I comfort myself, but there’s no way that accounts for all this weight gain”, she said.
“I think you’re probably right,” I said. “But at the same time, I suspect it is the stress that’s contributing to your weight gain. Here’s what I think is happening.” I went on to explain what I meant.
The truth is, stress is clearly linked to weight gain, but there are several different reasons why. If you’re struggling to reach your happy/healthy weight, here’s why stress may be sabotaging your efforts:
Our bodies are amazing. Long ago, we evolved to survive various threats: a surge of adrenaline sets off a cascade of physiologic changes that help us get away or defend ourselves. You know, the fight-or-flight response. Then, once the danger is passed, one of the hormones—cortisol—triggers our urge to build up our stores again and eat. So we’ll have the energy for the next threat that attacks.
It’s a good system…when there’s actual physical danger.
Now, the danger tends to be less often mortal danger of a predator…and more often a stack of bills that need to be paid. But our systems still function the same. Even once the immediate threat is resolved, there’s still a cascade of responses that happen. Particularly if the stress is sustained.
One of the hormones released in response to stress and danger is cortisol. And cortisol is an interesting beast—it has a few beneficial effects, but many downsides. One is that it triggers our urge to build up our stores again. Assuming we’ve just had to spend a bunch of valuable energy in fighting off a bear, we need to replenish that energy, so cortisol triggers an urge to eat. Helpful when there actually was a bear…less so when it was simply a triggering meeting at work.
And cortisol has other, shall we say, undesirable effects that are even longer-lasting than the urge to inhale an entire buffet. But that leads us to…
2: BELLY FAT
Among other things, cortisol sends signals to our metabolism that we’re going to need to store some of our incoming energy as belly fat. Belly fat, historically and evolutionary-wise, was an excellent adaptation that ensured our survival. A highly resilient way of storing excess energy, it could help us survive a long winter, a famine, a siege from a neighboring village…whatever.
Of course now when fewer sieges happen, it’s less beneficial. Trouble is, it’s what our bodies want to do: evolution selected for those belly fat genes. In days long past, the guy with the most resilient belly fat was the last guy to starve and die when a famine hit. That guy went on to be your ancestor….because all the other potential ancestors died before they could procreate. You got the resistant belly fat genes.
Lucky you, yes?
3: EMOTIONAL EATING
This one is more of a behavioral thing than strict physiology. Anxiety and stress tend to trigger emotional eating and this is a particular problem given our constant and excessive access to food of all types. In previous epochs, stress eating might have looked like you scarfing down an extra handful of nuts and seeds while sitting around the fire, listening to stories. Now, stress eating looks like you taking a sharp left into the Dairy Queen drive thru on your way home from work.
To make things worse, we’re hard-wired to want the worst stuff. High-sugar, high-fat food gives us a dopamine hit: the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It’s rewarding and soothing—at least temporarily. Until the inevitable guilt spiral of shame and self-blame begins.
4: MINDLESS EATING
Stress and worry are highly distracting. Which means they are contributors to another related, yet distinct, eating problem: mindless eating. This is when we are eating without awareness, like an automaton. When we’re too busy in our own heads, tending to those spinning thoughts, we often don’t even notice that our arm keeps raising the fork to our mouth. Ten minutes later we hit bare plate and realize we’ve hardly tasted—let alone enjoyed—a single bite.
5: SLEEP DEPRIVATION
Sleep disruption and insomnia are common, but even more so when we’re stressed. Anxiety disrupts our sleep-wake cycle and messes with our sleep rhythms. As a result, we wake feeling exhausted and beat a straight path to the coffee maker—which can interfere with our sleep the next night, too.
The question is: how is that connected with weight?
It revolves around a pair of neurochemicals, called ghrelin and leptin, that control appetite. Essentially, ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Released by the lining of your stomach, it sends signals to your brain that it’s time to eat. Leptin basically does the opposite by sending a “full” signal.
It turns out lack of sleep disrupts the normal functioning of ghrelin and leptin. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with higher levels of ghrelin, more hunger, and more cravings—especially for carbs. We have more difficulty resisting temptation and sticking to our healthy eating resolve.
There’s a lot more to it, but the research has clearly demonstrated that when you’re sleep deprived, it’s more difficult to lose weight.
But let’s go back to Angela. After unpacking all the stressors in her life and the effect they were having, it was clear that when it came to her weight loss efforts, she would be fighting an uphill battle until she got a handle on her stress.
And maybe you’re in a similar situation. If you think stress is sabotaging your weight loss plans, what can you do about it?
Truth is, there is a lot you can do about stress. I have much more to say about this—stress is one of my favorite topics—but I’ll save the details for future posts.
In the meantime, if you want to get started on managing stress, you can download (for free!) a 2-page PDF checklist with my Top 10 Stress Detox Tools. Just click here to grab it!
And finally, if you enjoyed this article and would love to hear more from me (just a short & sweet weekly love note in your inbox), sign up here.
When I was a medical student, I loved surgery. The operating room experience is like nothing else, and there’s something deeply satisfying about solving a problem so definitively. Tumor? You cut it out. Infection? You drain it. Voila. Problem solved.
Also, there’s the ritual of the OR: the washing of hands, the donning of sterile gown and gloves, the counting of instruments…always performed in the same unhurried, systematic rhythm. There’s a mental centering that happens while the physical preparation is underway. Then, in the operating room itself, there is an unmistakable immediacy—a total immersion in the moment. When the surgery is underway, there is no option but to be completely present. Someone’s life depends on it. You’re all in. It’s not a place where your mind can drift—to what you’re making for dinner later, or that funny bit in the movie you saw last night—it’s all about what’s happening here and now.
Does that sound…familiar?
Many people have heard the term “mindfulness”. It’s become a hot topic. Maybe you’ve noticed this and you’ve been wondering: what is it all about?
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
THE BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS
In a sense, we all walk around with a veil over our eyes, existing too much in our own heads. What proportion of your time do you spend thinking about the past: replaying previous events, ruminating over what happened yesterday, last week, five minutes ago? And how much of your time do you spend thinking of the future: planning your next steps, running through your to-do list, anticipating future events?
In contrast, when you fully live in the present moment, truly experiencing the now, that’s mindfulness.
What the ancients have long known about the benefits of mindfulness we are now beginning to prove scientifically.
Research has shown a multitude of benefits:
- reduced stress
- enhanced focus
- improved working memory
- decreased emotional reactivity
- reduced rumination
- improved relationship satisfaction
- reduced anxiety
- improved mood
As great as all that sounds, it’s not always easy to practice mindfulness. Our brains are designed to think, to learn, to plan. Those are the qualities that gave us our earth-shaking evolutionary advantage. We could strategize. We discovered we could plant crops and later harvest them for food. We learned from mistakes and adjusted our methods. All those capabilities are housed in our prefrontal cortex—the sophisticated part of our brains that makes us uniquely human. We hardly want to dispense with that part of our cognitive function.
But at the same time, all that thinking and reflecting and planning without pause is just…too much. The cost? Never living in the moment. Never living in the now.
How often do you forget if you locked your front door? When you go back to check, it’s done. Just like usual. Did I turn off the oven? Did I put the milk away? We do these tasks on autopilot, thinking about something else, not really paying attention to what we’re doing. That’s the opposite of mindfulness. And it leads to a life only partly lived. Food barely tasted, conversations barely attended to, pleasures barely savored. In contrast, there is an incredible liberty and sweet peace that comes from being fully present in the moment.
FULL IMMERSION IN THE MOMENT
One of my main passions in life is travel, and I think mindfulness has a lot to do with why. When you’re traveling, you’re seeing everything with eyes wide open. You’re totally immersed with all senses, savoring every drop of the experience.
When I backpacked through Thailand many years ago, one of the places I visited was the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai. I can still vividly recall the experience: the 309-step climb to the temple at the top of a mountain, the sunlit courtyard, the smell of incense and flowers, the sounds of hushed praying and chanting, the coolness of the tile floor on my bare feet as I slowly explored the temple. Without fully realizing it I was practicing mindfulness—something I think a lot of us do naturally when traveling. It’s what makes travel such a heightened experience.
But what if we could have the same caliber of experience during our daily lives?
“The real meditation is how you live your life.”
MINDFULNESS IN EVERYDAY MOMENTS
It’s no secret we live in stressful times. Everyone seems to be rushed, “crazy busy”, and anxiety-ridden. Technology plays a role in this, to be sure. We have a lot more stuff constantly pulling at our attention. Now more than ever, cultivating mindfulness is critical.
There are two key ways mindfulness can be integrated into your life. One is through formal meditation practice—which I’m not going to address here, specifically. It’s an important topic, and I do plan to delve into it in future posts, but for today we’re going to talk about another facet of mindfulness: the everyday, simple, moment-by-moment practice.
It’s the sort of practice that doesn’t require a gong, a meditation cushion, or any other setup. It can happen anywhere, while you’re doing anything. Washing the dishes. Eating. Drinking tea.
Let’s take the tea example: next time you’re drinking tea (or your hot beverage of choice), instead of mindlessly sipping and thinking of what you need to do later in the day, attend to the warmth of the mug in your hand. Focus on the smell of the tea as you raise it to your mouth. Concentrate on the tea’s taste, the warmth as you swallow, the feeling of comfort that follows.
Ideally, you want to find many opportunities throughout the day to check in and practice mindfulness, and you might want to consider some tools to help you in this pursuit. There are high-tech tools (apps on your phone), and low tech tools (a piece of string tied around your wrist). Some people simply make a habit of creating mindfulness triggers for themselves, like every time they cross a threshold, every time they open a door, or another similar everyday moment. One of the cleverest tips I’ve heard recently was this mindfulness trigger: every time you hear someone’s smartphone make a sound (a call, a notification), take that opportunity to do a brief mindfulness check-in, and take three deep breaths.
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
CULTIVATING MINDFULNESS FOR A LIFE WELL-LIVED
I now know the pleasure of mindfulness does not require a plane ticket to Thailand or a surgical rotation as a medical student. Mindfulness can be found in everyday moments, too. It just takes a little practice.
Part of me wonders what life would have been like had I selected surgery as a career path instead of family medicine (as I was strongly tempted to do). I do miss the operating room atmosphere. But I have found so many other ways to introduce mindfulness into my life—which I think is the actual legacy my surgical rotations provided.
And proves that some of the best lessons I learned in med school had nothing to do with anatomy or physiology.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear more about how you can improve your own health and pursue your passion for wellness….I’ve created something for you.
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Here are some other posts that I put in the category of “weight loss ninja”: