Gained some Pandemic Weight? Here’s Why STRESS is the Number 1 Culprit, and How to Kick it to the Curb!
Many Canadians battled their way through 2020 and have set some lofty 2021 goals around losing the Quarantine 15 they somehow gained over the year! If you have effortlessly picked up some extra pounds in 2020 and want to understand how to get rid of it FOR GOOD, this is the blog for you!
Understanding The Problem:
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many challenges including job losses, canceled weddings and graduations, online school, working from home and so much more! However, one challenge that many of us have struggled with is weight gain, so much so that it’s become an internet trend called- “the quarantine 15”.
The “quarantine 15” is frustrating because unlike other times in our lives where we may understand the cause of our weight gain, the weight gain this year may seem to have snuck up on us. Maybe you didn’t realize it until you went to put on your favourite pair of jeans and they didn’t quite fit the way they used to, or you went to grab your winter coat for the first time this season and it just felt a little bit snug! This realization sometimes leads to feelings of frustration, confusion and disappointment especially if you haven’t changed your lifestyle or eating habits all that much!
Understanding The First Weight Gain Culprit: STRESS
This may seem obvious, but hear us out! Everyone knows they are stressed due to the ongoing pandemic, right? BUT do you know how that stress is impacting your body and what "stress" is actually doing to you on the inside?
What does stress have to do with weight gain? Well, let’s take a look at what stress does in the body.
Once the brain processes that something stressful is happening, or we are in danger, our bodies enter a sympathetic state - or what we know as "fight or flight" mode. During this fight or flight mode, messages are sent from the brain down to our adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys. When the adrenal glands are activated, they start to secrete adrenaline. We all know what it feels like to have a lot of adrenaline run through our system. When we have an adrenaline rush, our hearts race, we breathe fast and we feel anxious, nervous, or excited. Adrenaline also increases our blood sugar levels, and fatty acids in the blood to make energy stores available for use. Adrenaline increases are a type of stress on the body, but this doesn’t necessarily mean something bad or dangerous is happening. You could be watching an exciting sports game or having a great workout and adrenaline would be high in these cases.
That being said, our bodies cannot sustain high amounts of adrenaline for long periods. This is when the hormone cortisol comes in. Cortisol is also secreted from the adrenal glands. Cortisol continues the job of adrenaline by making fatty acids available in the bloodstream as well as increasing glucose.
What does this have to do with weight gain?
The release of fatty acids and glucose leads to the release of the hormone insulin. Insulin is another hormone in our body that can promote weight gain. The job of insulin is to help the body absorb sugar from the bloodstream into our cells.
So when cortisol leads to the release of glucose into the blood and this isn’t used up by the body, insulin is signaled to take this glucose from the blood and bring it into our cell. Cells then store this excess sugar as fat. Over a chronic period of time, this fat starts to accumulate. The fat usually accumulates around the midsection- sometimes called the cortisol belly.
So as you can see weight gain, can actually be a symptom rather than the actual issue at hand!
What if the problem isn’t solved?
For starters, the weight gain isn’t going to go away if we don’t deal with this root issue of stress. The weight gain itself may impact self-esteem and confidence and the added weight can often lead to a lack of energy and fatigue and can ultimately impact your health.
Also, as I’m sure you know, it doesn’t feel good to be stressed! Constantly feeling stressed takes away from our life, decreasing our enjoyment- it’s hard to have too much fun when you’re feeling stressed out. It also can mean interrupted sleep, inability to focus, and muscle tightness and pain.
Let’s take a break to do a body check: Take a second right now and answer these 2 questions for me: is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders up near your ears? If you said yes, take a second to shake it out, wiggle your jaw, and shake your shoulders before you continue reading!
On top of just not feeling good and causing weight gain, stress plays a huge role in nearly every chronic disease. Stress causes our blood pressure to increase, our heart rate and blood sugar levels to spike, and inflammatory factors to be released inside the body.
All of these actions are risk factors for major diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. When we’re stressed, we are in a sympathetic state, this fight or flight mode I talked about before. When in this mode, bodies are not concerned with long-term goals like digestion or procreation. This means that chronic stress can negatively impact our digestion, causing issues like irritable bowel syndrome as well as infertility. Stress also decreases our body’s ability for a proper immune response which is more important than ever right now.
The good news is, YOU CAN FIX THIS!
If you spend time fixing this root issue of increased stress, you won’t just lose weight but gain a healthier, happier life for good! Yes, decreasing stress may help you lose that extra weight and make you feel better about yourself, but it will also decrease the risk for chronic disease, improve relationships, increase confidence, improve work performance and pleasure/happiness in life. Decreasing stress sounds great-but for a lot of us right now, it is a stressful time and several causes of stress are beyond our control. Therefore, we’re going to focus on coping with stress, rather than trying to eliminate it. Stress will always be around; so it’s how we react to it that’s most important.
How to solve the issue and develop coping strategies for stress:
There are a few things you can do to decrease your stress. The ones we are going to touch on are:
- Movement reminders
- Meditation & Deep Breathing
- Take Work Breaks
- Intentional Nutrition
Step 1: Exercise & Movement Reminders
One of the best ways to improve our body’s response to stress (both acute and chronic) is through exercise! Regular physical activity both decreases stress from our minds and helps decrease the impact of the risk factors I mentioned before associated with high stress (like high blood pressure and blood sugar levels).
Aim to get about 20-30 mins per day of moderate exercise to start. A combination of resistance training and cardio is best. If you have been under a lot of stress for a long period of time, you may want to skip the run and endurance training and focus on more restorative practices like yoga or resistance training at a lighter weight.
Right now, with gyms closed and the cold weather, there is not a lot of motivation for exercise- I get it. So something that may help is setting an activity alarm! Every day try to set an alarm for each hour. When the alarm goes off, do some sort of activity for 2-5 mins. Whatever works in your day. This activity can be anything you want to do: running on the spot, pushups, squats, walking around in your house. Anything to get your body moving. Move as much as you can for that short amount of time. And if you set an alarm for every hour for the entire workday, you’ll hit your 20-40 mins easily.
Step 2: Yoga
Yoga is a form of exercise but it is also good to add on top of your exercise as a more soothing aspect of your stress-busting activities. Yoga can help reduce the muscle tension which builds up with stress as well as get you moving and offer you some time to unload your thoughts. Yoga with Adrienne videos on YouTube is an amazing option to experiment with Yoga. They are free and she has a wide range of videos from beginners to more advanced videos. Yoga can be great to do first thing in the morning, on your lunch break or after dinner to help you unwind before bed. Remember, you don’t have to do an hour-long video each day. Try to start small by doing a 10-minute video and see how you feel. Trying at-home yoga is a great way to get used to doing yoga before trying it in public.
Step 3: Meditation & Deep Breathing
Meditation and deep breathing are great ways to deal with stress at the moment and also to help work on chronic stress levels. Allowing ourselves even just 5 minutes a day to clear our brains of to-do lists and worries can be extremely helpful in limiting stress. I like to use an app to guide me through meditations. I am currently using the app Balance and apps like Headspace and Calm are also great meditation apps. Deep breathing exercises can also be helpful in acute situations.
Step 4: Work Breaks
Sometimes, throughout the day, stress builds. This may get to a point where you’re sitting at your computer, heart racing and you feel anxious and irritated, maybe frustrated and overwhelmed. This is a great time to take a break and incorporate some deep breathing.
When you find yourself getting to this state. Stop. Stand up or at least look away from your screen. Take a deep breath, hold it and breathe out your mouth. Sometimes just one breath can be enough to lower stress levels and re-centre yourself. Perhaps you need a few breath cycles or to get up and do a quick stretch while breathing. Catching yourself in those high-stress times can be very useful in lowering the level of adrenaline I discussed previously.
Taking breaks is a great way to reduce stress throughout the day. If you’re working from home, you may struggle to find the time to take as many breaks as before. When working at an office we chat with co-workers, walk to the washroom, and go on coffee runs which helps break up a long day. Try to set up some break times in your day at home if possible, even just for 1-2 minutes to walk around, stretch and drink some water. Remember, when eating lunch or even a snack, close the laptop and even switch up the environment if you can.
Step 5: Intentional Nutrition
Eating away from work will help you be more mindful of what you are eating. When you eat more mindfully, you will have a better sense of when you are full and it will help stop you from overeating. Focusing on our meals also helps us digest more efficiently, limiting bloating and indigestion.
When stressed, one of the most common reactions is to binge on food. So much so that we have now termed unhealthy food ‘comfort food’ and there’s a good reason for this. The increase in cortisol associated with stress spikes our blood sugar which eventually leads to a crash. Our bodies then seek out more sugar to bring levels back to baseline. This leads us to crave those cookies and doughnuts even if we aren’t necessarily hungry.
But the unfortunate part is that continually appeasing these cravings makes things worse! If you find yourself falling into the 3:00 pm crash each day, try to fill up on lower sugar, healthy whole food meals like fish, eggs, whole grains and legumes to keep yourself full so you’re less likely to fall into the sugar cycle. If you’re having a craving for something sweet, try pairing your snack with some fats or protein to keep you full for longer. Instead of reaching for some cookies, try some dark chocolate with almonds or nut butter on toasted sweet potato or paired with a banana. It can also help to have some prepared snacks like protein-filled muffins or energy balls for this time of day.
Step 6: Supplementation
On top of lifestyle changes, we can also use some supplements to help regulate our stress. Not everyone needs to supplement and as always consult a healthcare provider before starting something new. But a group of supplements called adaptogens can be a huge help while in stressful times.
Adaptogens are supplements that come from mostly herbs and some mushrooms. They help the body deal with high amounts of stress by regulating the stress response. Adaptogens are neat because they regulate and don’t suppress the stress response. The difference here is that if someone is burnt out and cortisol is low, adaptogens can help increase levels. They bring the body back to a healthy baseline. This is what separates them from more calming herbs like lavender or chamomile which can be used acutely in stress.
There are several different types of adaptogens and depending on where you are in the stress spectrum some adaptogens are stimulating while some are more sedating.
For example, Ginseng is a more energizing herb. It is used for cognitive function, improving physical stamina and endurance. While an herb like ashwagandha is great for decreasing high stress and improving sleep.
You can take adaptogenic herbs in several forms. There are teas, tinctures or supplements. There are also several different supplements and formulations which combine many different adaptogens together. Some great combined supplements I like are Ortho Adapt by AOR, Adrenal Pro by Can Prev or Adrenal SAP by NFH.
It’s always best to get some testing done in order to see where you are on the stress spectrum before supplementing. Your Naturopathic Doctor will give you a specific list of tests based on your individual symptoms. For patients who are generally feeling stressed and fatigued, I usually recommend having their B12, iron, folate, TSH, and vitamin D. It is important to know that wherever you are on the stress scale, you have the ability to make some positive changes.
Where Information Leaves You:
Now that you have all these amazing Stress Hacks, you can slowly start to implement them into your daily life. Decreasing your stress can help you into your jeans again AND have enough energy to enjoy yourself while wearing them. It’s important to note that implementing all at once could be overwhelming and even a little stressful! Pick a few and give them a try and let us know how they help you!
We hope these tips help you manage your stress for good and that these tips will help make Better Health Simple.