Stress: Can Stress Cause Weight Gain? (cont.)

Here's what the experts recommend:

1. Exercise. This is the best stress-buster -- and also happens to be good for you in lots of other ways. "It not only burns calories, when you move your body, even with a simple activity such as walking, you begin to produce a cascade of biochemicals, at least some of which counter the negative effects of stress hormones -- as well as control insulin and sugar levels," says Talbott.

At the same time, Ginsburg notes that exercising too hard for too long can raise cortisol levels and actually increase stress. The answer, he says is to choose an activity you really enjoy doing -- be it an aerobic sport like running or a calmer activity such as Pilates -- and then keep workouts to a length that doesn't exhaust you (this could be as little as 20 minutes a day, three to five days a week).

2. Eat a balanced diet -- and never skip a meal. "Eat breakfast -- and try to consume six small rather than three huge meals a day, with foods from all the food groups," Ginsberg tells WebMD. This helps keep blood sugar levels steady, which in turn put a damper on insulin production and eventually reduce cortisol levels -- all helping to control appetite and weight.

3. Don't lose sleep, over your weight problems or your stress -- When we don't get enough rest, cortisol levels rise, making us feel hungry and less satisfied with the food we do eat, Ginsberg says.

4. Devote time to relaxation -- Because it works much like exercise to produce brain chemicals that counter the effects of stress, Ginsburg suggests finding the activities that make you feel relaxed and calm. For some, he says, yoga can do the trick. Others may prefer meditation techniques or deep breathing.

And don't overlook the relaxing power of cuddling up on a sofa with a good book or magazine, or even playing your favorite movie on the VCR. "Anything that makes you feel calm and relaxed will help counter the biochemical effects of stress," says Talbott.

5. Snack on whole grain, high fiber foods. If you just can't ignore those stress-related hunger pangs, try filling your tummy with foods high in fiber and low in sugar, like oatmeal, whole wheat bread, or fruits such as pears or plums.

According to Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, author of Fight Fat After Forty, foods that are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates -- like white flour, cookies, cake, white rice, or pasta -- cause insulin levels to rise, which in turn increases stress hormones and ultimately makes you feel more hungry. But high-fiber, whole-grain foods -- particularly cereals like oatmeal or multi-grain flakes, as well as fruits -- help keep insulin levels on a even keel, which can help control blood sugar levels, and ultimately, hunger, according to Peeke.

6. Avoid caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol -- According to the American Institute of Stress, cigarettes, as well as caffeine-laden soft drinks, coffee, tea, and even chocolate, can cause cortisol levels to rise, stress to increase, blood sugar to drop and hunger to prevail. The institute also cautions against drinking too much alcohol, which can affect blood sugar and insulin levels.

7. Take your vitamins -- A number of medical studies have shown that stress can deplete important nutrients -- particularly the B complex and C vitamins, and sometimes the minerals calcium and magnesium.

Because these nutrients are needed to balance the effects of stress hormones like cortisol, and may even play a role in helping us burn fat, it's important to keep levels high, Talbott says. While a good diet will help, he says, taking a high potency multi-vitamin supplement can insure you give your body what it needs to not only deal with the stress, but also burn fat and lose weight.

And speaking of losing weight, here's one bit of news you may be happy to hear: Experts say you shouldn't try to go on a strict diet when you're under extreme or chronic stress.

In one study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2001, researchers from the University of British Columbia found that severely limiting calorie intake could kick off a series of biochemical events that ultimately not only increased stress levels, but could make people feel more hungry.

The researchers followed 62 women for three days. Of this group, 33 were on a diet of no more than about 1,500 calories a day, while the other 29 consumed up to about 2,200 calories daily.

After analyzing urine samples, researchers found that the women who had consumed the least food had the highest levels of cortisol. Not surprisingly, these same women also reported more stress during what researchers called "daily food-related experiences." In short, the more they restricted food intake, the greater their levels of stress hormones, and, ultimately, the more they wanted to eat.

If you find yourself chronically stressed out, the experts say, you should do what you can to decrease your stress levels, then follow a reduced-calorie, yet balanced, diet to stop the weight gain and lose the extra pounds.

Originally published April 23, 2003
Medically updated May 2, 2005.

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