We are a strung-out generation — between work and relationships, we’re constantly stressing over something. Now while our bodies are well equipped to deal with this daily onslaught, stress is a strain – especially sustained stress, which takes a serious toll on our bodies. Oh hi, stress belly.
Got tummy troubles?
According to Maryke Gallagher, spokesperson of the Association Of Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), our autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion and respiratory rate. “Stress hormones switch on the sympathetic nervous system to increase your heartbeat and send blood to the areas to cope with the emergency.” In the process, the effects of the parasympathetic system (in charge of functions like digestion), are dampened. The result? Diarrhoea, nausea, constipation, stomach cramps and IBS. Stress can also exacerbate heartburn and acid reflux.
Why do we reach for all the “bad foods”?
As if we didn’t already have enough on our plates… Whenever we’re stressed, it’s always the naughty foods we crave. Gallagher explains: “Research has shown that in susceptible individuals chronic stress can lead to overeating, especially highly palatable, less nutritious foods that are high in highly processed carbs, sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible.”
The hormone ghrelin (responsible for making us feel hungry), may also have a hand in this. As does the happy hormone, serotonin. But while carbs might trigger its release, the relief is short-lived. “The consumption of these foods can have a negative effect on blood sugar levels, causing spikes and drops in blood sugar that then make one feel agitated, fatigued and hungry and grabbing for the same sugary, highly-processed foods that initiated this process, leading to a vicious circle of poorer dietary choices.”
Your weight can reflect your state of mind
While others might lose weight when stressed, some of tend towards emotional eating. Yup — stress belly. Registered dietician and ADSA spokesperson Mpho Tshukudu says: “Adrenalin can trigger overeating or eating unhealthy foods to calm the response after the body has used up glucose for the stressful situation. One may eat mindlessly while thinking about the problem at hand and not even focus on the taste of foods, portions and your satiety level.”
Elevated cortisol creates physiological changes that help to replenish the body’s energy stores that are used and depleted during the stress response. It makes you want to eat more to score more energy. This leads to increased appetite and cravings for sweet and fatty foods, which can lead to fat gain, particularly around the belly.
How to get rid of your stress belly
- Eat regular meals to avoid blood glucose dips, which helps to keep hunger and hormones such as insulin in check. Skipping meals on the other hand can exacerbate symptoms of stress and erode your stress response.
- Focus on a diet rich in plant-based, high-fibre foods such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and whole grains, as well as lean proteins and healthy fats. This will assist in better blood sugar regulation to better manage the short term effects of stress, while protecting the body against chronic disease in the long run.
- Avoid highly-processed carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods.
- Be careful of regularly eating treat foods, like chocolate, in order to make you ‘feel better’. Likewise be aware of not increasing your intake of caffeine or alcohol during stressful times.
- Consider including fermented foods in your diet, or taking a probiotic supplement to keep your gut microbiome healthy. Research has shown that stress affects the amount and type of healthy bacteria in the gut, which in turn can affect our immunity that may be suppressed due to stress. Tshukudu points out: “There is a complex two-way connection between the digestive system and the brain, called the brain-gut axis. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a stressed brain can send signals to the gut. This system is sensitive to our emotional state and affects digestive illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion and heartburn. It also affects the whole body function.”
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