Quarantine has pushed us out of any semblance of our normal routines; gyms and pools are closed, stress levels are high, and the fridge is constantly beckoning from the other room. Forget the set breakfast, lunch, and dinner times built into the normal work or school day--we’ve been left to our own devices, and the boredom monster has made the temptation of snacking too great to bear!
Many of us are dealing with the stress of potential unemployment in a depressed economy, scraping it together to pay the bills, on top of having little outlet from everyday annoyances; in response, our bodies are pumping out cortisol and adrenaline, keeping our minds and bodies in a near constant state of “crisis” and negatively impacting every single system in the body over time.
This perfect storm has us reaching for more sweets, more alcohol, more junk food--more comfort really. Stress, junk food, and little exercise: a recipe for unwanted weight gain.
During the stress response, cortisol and adrenaline are released, which set off a cascade of processes in the body to prepare for fight or flight. The body dumps glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream to give the muscles the energy they need to respond to “immediate danger.” Picture a 5 year old right after they’ve eaten heaps of sugary foods and drinks; this is the level of amped up your body prepares you to be in a fight or flight response--ready to take on acts of heroism, run from a bear, fight an intruder, etc.
But the body doesn’t distinguish between everyday stresses and imminent danger. It responds the same way every time we experience any level of fear, anxiety, or excitement: sugar pours into the bloodstream every time we watch something on the news that scares us and every time we worry about paying the bills. The difference is, there are no heroic actions, fight, or flight to be seen here, just sedentary anxiety, an amped up body, and no outlet.
This intense glucose spike in our system that would usually be used up by fight or flight has nowhere to go. Instead, it ends up overworking the pancreas, making our cells insulin resistant, and producing inflammation in the body. It’s no coincidence that the same systems implicated in obesity and type 2 diabetes are also implicated in chronic stress, which is associated with weight gain.
Another important piece of this puzzle is the effects of cortisol on appetite. It’s been harder to resist the urge to snack during this stressful time, hasn’t it? This is because cortisol ramps up our appetite and even affects our cravings, turning us towards foods higher in sugar and fat and towards alcohol. These food choices are reinforced because they have a dampening effect on perceived stress and emotion.
All of this sugar combined with reinforcement of eating for comfort--both from the stress response and our diet--sends us careening towards a blood sugar crash...which then starts the entire cycle over (whether or not we’re experiencing stress in the moment) by increasing our sugar craving.
When this cycle continues over time, we are being exposed to and producing more toxins than usual; the food we are eating is often higher in toxins, the body’s digestion process of those foods produces more toxins, and high levels of cortisol in the blood need somewhere to go.
Stress-related weight gain serves a different purpose in the body than other types of weight gain. It’s a built in response to protect the body from this increase in toxins and cortisol; the body produces fat cells to absorb and store them in a place that keeps them from harming us.
Stress-related weight gain won’t always respond to your usual weight loss regimen because these fat cells are serving a necessary function in your body, but there are two main things you can do to drop this weight effectively and quickly.
Study after study tells us that bad news is addicting, and there has been no shortage of bad news to watch lately. A 2007 study on two decades of news viewership data revealed that reports on terrorism and war are most popular. Another study revealed that while people say that they prefer positive news, data overwhelmingly confirms a skewed consumer interest in negative news.
Combatting this bias towards negative news starts with awareness. People clearly believe that they prefer positive news, but in reality, they are much more likely to read or watch negative news reports. There is a clear and rampant lack of awareness for our tendency towards bad news, and news stations capitalize on this! Few things sell better than fear.
Knowing that we get addicted to bad news is valuable information because it means you can stop your stress response before it happens. Try keeping the news off as much as possible. If you want to watch the news, understand that your body will undergo a stress response. Make sure you are exercising after to burn off the glucose that gets pumped into your bloodstream as a result, or try doing deep breathing exercises as you watch to mitigate the intensity of your body’s stress response. Reducing the impact of stress in your life is, of course, one of the best ways to avoid stress-related weight gain.
Fat cells are produced in the cycle of chronic stress for the specific purpose of storing toxins and cortisol to keep them from harming your body. The body won’t want to get rid of those fat cells unless there is a safe place for the stored toxins to go. Once your body starts detoxing effectively, you’ll see much better weight loss results simply because those toxins have a place to go that won’t harm your body.
The best way to support the liver in detoxification is through diet. Food is medicine, and there are many foods that naturally aid in the detoxification process, including cruciferous vegetables, berries, soy, garlic, and turmeric.
For a more aggressive detox regimen, there are many dietary supplements and powders that are specifically designed to aid in detoxification, and many of them are extremely effective. Our food supply has been robbed of the nutritional value that we need to fuel every aspect of our bodily processes, so our bodies need supplements to take the place of that nutritional value.
However, there are many products and “cleanses” out there that are not only ineffective, but can even be harmful. It’s often difficult to decipher what works in this realm without thorough research and a trained eye, so it’s best to talk to a nutritionist or doctor when looking for detox products to make sure they are safe and effective.
Using these strategies combined with exercise will help you undo the effects of increased stress, comfort food, and alcohol during quarantine!