How to Lose Weight
Weight loss fads come and go. Some of them are downright dangerous and some are just crazy.
With all the buzz circulating on social media and television, you’re probably wondering how much of the hype you can actually believe.
In order to avoid this kind of empty chatter, we’re cutting straight to the chase by providing a clear and direct guide for those of you wondering how to lose weight. What follows is an exploration of a complex issue with a focus on stress, cortisol and the negative influence that they have on our efforts to lose weight.
Hormones, Stress and Your Weight
A hormone is a substance an organism uses to kick certain cells, or even big groups of cells (tissues), into action. They are chemical messengers that exist in all creatures with more than one cell. There are a wide variety of functions performed by the many different hormones. Together, they coordinate our highly complex bodily processes.
Now, a group of these hormones are associated with stress via what is called “the fight or flight response”. You’ve probably heard of Cortisol. It is often recognized as the stress hormone. Cortisol is indeed a stress hormone, and it is related to weight gain, but there are actually a number of hormones related to stress. The hormones related to stress include glucocorticoids (cortisol), catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline), growth hormone and prolactin.
Cortisol has been associated with weight gain in a variety of ways. A 2001 study looked at cortisol, stress and eating behavior. The results suggest what many of us already know to be true, stress can make you eat more. Women’sHealth mentions a study which found that when stressed and non-stressed women ate the same foods, the stressed women gained more weight and abdominal fat. Yet another finger pointing at stress. The same Women’sHealth article also says that with chronic stress, cortisol levels remain consistently high which ultimately inhibits your body’s ability to burn fat and makes losing weight much more difficult.
So, what is the lesson here? The point is simple, stress is unhealthy is more than a few ways. There are hormonal responses to stress that change our eating habits and cause us to gain weight. It’s always good to “know your enemy”, and in this case one of our main enemies seems to be cortisol. By identifying stress as the culprit, we have a goal to pursue. We know that high levels of cortisol over long periods of time will make losing weight difficult and so we take steps to manage chronic stress. What do those steps look like?
Stress Reduction and Cortisol Management
Wee identified stress in general, and cortisol specifically, as the cause of our weight-loss woes. So we should figure out ways in which we can realistically reduce the stress in our lives while also learning to manage the stress that cannot be eliminated. So we have a two pronged approach: eliminate stress in our lives and manage cortisol.
Unfortunately, we can’t all run off to the forest to meditate at the base of a tree. There is definitely something to be said for taking breaks from the rat race, but it is not always possible. We are always going to be forced to endure at least some stress. Some people are more reactive (sensitive) to stress, they produce more cortisol in response to stimuli, maybe you are one of them. Instead of telling you how to live your life, I’m just gonna move right onto the second prong of our approach. How can we manage the stress we are forced to endure?
Here are some suggestions:
- Get the right amount of sleep. Good sleep plays an important role in regulating cortisol levels. As we know, too much cortisol for too long makes it difficult to lose weight.
Exercise is a double edged sword. Below a certain level of intensity, exercise will reduce cortisol, but above a certain threshold it will raise cortisol levels.
Learn to recognize stress and practice mindfulness. While the mindfulness practices have roots in eastern philosophy, there have been recent efforts to turn these into evidence-based mental health therapies. Researchers such as Jon Kabat Zinn, Daniel Siegel and many others have written extensively about the many benefits of mindfulness practices. We will discuss mindfulness more in a moment.
- Have fun! Laugh more. Find a hobby. Find things that make you happy. Studies suggest that laughter reduces cortisol.
- Relax. It isn’t always easy, and it isn’t quite the same thing as indfulness’, but finding a practice that suits you can be really helpful when it comes to losing weight. Various relaxation techniques have proven effective in reducing cortisol, even something as simple as getting a massage. And, as we know, cortisol is not our friend.
- Focus on the importance of relationships. Try to maintain good relationships. Good relationships provide a strong foundation that supports many of the other aspects mentioned on our list so far. Get a pet! A relationship with a pet can also be similarly beneficial.
- Don’t be hard on yourself. This is a very difficult task when it comes to losing weight. It is easy to become highly critical toward ourselves. While it may seem like such negative self-talk is necessary to get going, it is actually a hindrance. Remember that shame, guilt or feelings of inadequacy can lead to elevated cortisol, too!
- Connect with your faith. Studies suggest that people with spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of illness or other stressors.
We’ve covered basic physiological concepts, we narrowed in on the stress hormone (cortisol), and we explored its role in weight loss. High levels of cortisol over long periods of time are really hard on the body in many ways, but if you are wondering how to lose weight, you should know that keeping your cortisol levels in check is very important.
After having established a basic understanding of these processes, we explored some ways to reduce cortisol so that our weight loss efforts are more likely to be successful. Some of these methods include the various mindfulness practices, relaxation techniques, wholesome relationships, avoiding negative self talk, and more.
Before you go, I would like to share a simple mindfulness practice that you can practice wherever you are. It is an ancient practice that has been verified by modern science.
The practice is simple:
When breathing in, be aware of the in-breath. Notice if it is short or long.
When breathing out, be aware of the out-breath. Notice if it is short or long.
If you are curious about mindfulness, I suggest you visit Dr. Dan Siegel’s website.