Very few of us are immune to the impact of stress in today’s day and age. High levels of stress is the most common complaint I see in my practice and I believe we’ve become desensitised to stress, meaning we take it as a ‘given’ and resign ourselves that it’s just part of life. So many of my clients say ‘I’m 10/10 stressed, but isn’t everybody?’. It reminds me of the story of the frog in the pot. If a frog is put into a pot of already boiling water, it will jump out to save itself. But if it is put into a pot of cool water which is slowly turned up to boil, it will not try & escape (even though it will perish) because it slowly becomes accustomed to the temperature. In the same way, in todays world we have become desensitised to stress because it has become ‘the norm’, it has become an accepted part of daily life. But the impact of stress on the body is incredibly devastating, and takes time to manifest, in gradual and subtle ways. In fact, recent research is showing that 80% of modern day illnesses can be attributed to stress.
Enter the reptilian brain
Whether we like it or not, even though we are highly evolved, we are also primal beings and the human body reverts to ancient pathways when it deals with stress. Neuroscientists are using the body’s oldest evolutionary processes to determine the connection between stress & weight gain and are able to offer interesting insights into what happens with stress, and why.
It seems that there is a fairly simple explanation behind the weight gain/stress connection: the unconscious mind and the body act as if we are still ancient humans living in prehistoric conditions. In today’s world of stress – work, relationships, finances, parenting – the body releases stress hormones such as cortisol just as it would have if we were at war or experiencing famine. Over time these stress hormones, particularly cortisol, significantly reduce the number of synapses in the human brain, resulting in a negative impact on our rational brain, which in turn reduces our impulse control. So in essence, too much cortisol over an extended period of time increases urges and reduces our control over them.
Pleasure: the natural healer
What I think is really interesting here is that to counteract the damage caused by cortisol & other stress hormones, the ancient part of our brain drives us to find more pleasure. The reason for this is because when we experience pleasure, the body is flooded with hormones like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, which bind to receptors in the brain and reduce the damaging effect of stress hormones. It’s the body’s way of trying to stay safe – survival of the fittest.
In other words, the more stress you experience, the more the brain will seek pleasure to counter it. Stress damages the brain, but pleasure repairs it. And guess what? That pleasure often comes in the form of food, because that was the body’s first ever experience of pleasure. So, when our ancient brain is requiring a pleasurable experience, it is common to reach for sweet treats, alcohol and comfort food.
So how do we counteract the brain’s desire for pleasure?
The most obvious one would be to reduce cortisol, via stressreduction through activities like meditation, yoga and breath work – 3 of my favourites, and the most impactful. In fact studies show that just 5 minutes of abdominal breath work can significantly reduce cortisol levels.
However, there are other less well-known contributors of high cortisol levels that when addressed, can have a very positive impact on reducing body stress, and these are lack of good quality sleep, dehydration and exposure to toxicity & chemicals.
Here are my top 5 quick wins for reducing cortisol levels so we positively impact our fat burning capability
1. Prioritise 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and go to bed by 9pm. Studies have shown that lack of good quality sleep creates inflammation, a rise in cortisol and reduced immunity. It is virtually impossible to lose weight if you don’t sleep properly, so ensuring you sleep enough hours is vitally important. If you struggle with your sleep, speak to a holistic practitioner about sleep hygiene, and ask for natural ways to sedate the central nervous system to ensure a better nights rest.
2. Drink 2-3 litres of filtered (alkaline if possible) water per day. Studies show 66% of Australians are chronically dehydrated. Ensure you have a bottle that can accurately measure your daily intake. For every cup of coffee you will need an additional 2 glasses of water (caffeine is a diuretic and flushes fluids out of the body) and for every cup of tea, 1 additional glass).
3. Reduce the amount of toxicity you have in your home. Toxicity is stored in the fat cells and the body will always prioritise the metabolism of toxicity before fat burning, so the less toxicity in your system the better. I would suggest you examine all of your household products and toiletries and see where you are able to use less toxic ones. Chemicals to look out for are Parabens, Phthalates, PERC, Ammonias and Chlorines. Most supermarkets offer brands like Earth, Ecostore, Method, Mayers, Thankyou & Seventh Generation.
4. Practice meditation daily. Meditation has been found to alleviate anxiety, stress & depression & improve overall sense of well-being. If you are new to mediation, Headspace is a great app to start with and costs very little to use.
5. Practice Breathwork daily. As previously discussed, just 20 minutes of breath work daily can dramatically impact cortisol levels & reduce the inflammation caused by stress. My favourite is pranayama breathing but you can pick your own, as long as it is abdominal breathing.
Before we end, a quick word about cortisol. This stress hormone has gotten a pretty bad rap these days because of its impact on the body in extended periods of stress. However, cortisol plays a vitally important role in maintaining a healthy body. In the correct amounts, it helps control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. It also has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. We all need cortisol, the trick is to make sure we don’t push the body to overproduce it, as that’s when the issues arise.
To your health and harmony