How many times have you heard that stress makes you fat? More than a few I would suspect. Come to think of it I am sure that I have been guilty of saying this to some of our London personal training clients. However, like all sweeping statements it’s not quite true. What actually makes you fat is your response to stress and the impact that has on your body – haven’t we all pigged out when we are miserable. The way that we eat has a huge impact on our ability to cope with stress and today we will examine how to beat stress with nutrition and how to avoid the common pitfalls and optimize our diets so that stress and its deleterious impact are minimized.
Why Stress Leads to Bad Eating and Fat Bodies
You should know by now that stress raises cortisol levels in the classic “fight or flight” syndrome. Our original stress programme as cavemen was designed to give us a boost when hunting or just plain surviving. Cortisol is what is known as an “energetic hormone” and is produced at times when our bodies require an extra boost for immediate action. Unfortunately, modern man suffers from a constant undercurrent of stress akin to a pressure cooker running without a valve. How often have you felt stress literally rising through your body as you are stuck in bad traffic, dealing with deadlines, worrying about the mortgage, or listening to the late night doom and gloom that passes for news nowadays.
All of this means that you can’t switch off at night and have trouble falling and/or staying asleep. We all then turn to sugary foods or pastries to keep our energy levels up the next day. The result? Weight gain.
Also, during stressful periods, it is very common to skip meals altogether as the temporary hormonal status can blunt hunger pangs. You know that when this happens you almost always end up binging on all the wrong foods.
Coping with stress can be as simple as fixing your diet – not mainlining caffeine!!
How to Mitigate Stress Through Nutrition & Supplementation
1. Eat a small meal every 3 hours:
Keeping blood sugar stable is a crucial aspect of stress control as low blood sugar raises cortisol levels and leads to the pig-outs that always add body fat. Your body is a very smart mechanism, insulin mitigates cortisol so one of the reasons why you crave sugary/starchy foods when you are hungry is that the insulin produced by such eating will cease the production of cortisol. The clever thing to do here is to graze, having a small balanced meal every few hours rather than lurching from feast to famine and back again.
2. Ensure adequate hydration:
Never ever allow yourself to become dehydrated. Inadequate hydration causes a change to the pH balance of your body, disrupting testosterone output and drastically raising cortisol output. Aim for at least 3 litres of water daily, and remember that feeling thirsty means that you are already significantly dehydrated.
3. Supplement with extra Omega 3 Fatty Acids:
Essential fatty acids have a myriad of wonderful health properties, and in the particular context of stress mitigation they are highly beneficial due to their inhibition of the adrenal activation of steroids, aldosterone, epinephrine and norepinephrine elicited by a mental stress, through effects exerted at the level of the central nervous system. In plain English this means that for the same amount of stress you will produce fewer stress hormones when consuming omega 3s on a regular basis. We tend to have the most success when we tie in dosage with body fat %, roughly operating on the basis that it is best to supplement with 1 gram of fish oil for every 1% body fat carried.
This is a lipid that can significantly reduces evening/exercise induced cortisol levels. The ideal dosage protocol is 400mg post workout and 400mg at bedtime, or to take a straight 800mg before retiring. It is a neural inhibitor and will certainly improve the quality of your sleep. It is one of our top sellers here in our London Personal Training Gym.
5. Adaptogenic Herbs:
These are botanical herbs that do literally what they say on the tin – they allow the body to “adapt” to stress by allowing for appropriate cortisol output. In fact they serve the dual positive purpose of boosting adrenal output when in a state of depletion and calming cortisol output during times of stress when the adrenal glands are being overstimulated. Look for Holy Basil, Ashwaghanda, Panax Ginseng, and Rhodiola Rosea. An excellent product that contains a host of adaptogens is Poliquin Performance’s Yin Builder.
6. Supplement with Magnesium:
Magnesium calms the nervous system and makes us less prone to feel the effects of stress. Specifically, the magnesium salt that you should look for is Magnesium Taurate. The taurine (contained in the taurate) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, acting as a relaxing agent for the body. Optimal dosage is 350mg with dinner, and a further 350mg upon retiring.
Conclusion on how to Beat Stress with Nutrition
We can’t control many of the stressful things that happen to us on a daily basis, but we can do many things to help us mitigate any harmful effects. Eating and supplementing wisely can have both a positive physical and mental impact on our ability to brush problems aside and get on with living and enjoying life as it should be lived.
By Nick Mitchell, “London’s Best Personal Trainer” (Time Out London 2010).