Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Do Stress and Lack of Sleep Conspire to Make You Fat?

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Barbara Goshorn BSRN MSACN

The Nurse Nutritionist

You bet they do! The trouble with stress is that it seeps into every area of your life- affecting your sleep, mood, and the size of your waistline.  The interactions between these factors were a subject in a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity.  The researchers expected to find a correlation with stress and weight gain but were astonished to see how sleep was an important predictor in the ability to lose weight (and successfully keep it off).
Participants were enrolled in a weight loss program that included weekly group meetings, keeping a food journal, reducing calorie consumption by 500 calories daily, and exercising 6 times a week for 30 minutes.  Participants in the study who reported sleeping less than 6 hours a night were unable to meet a 10 pound weight loss, compared with people who slept 6-8 hours.  Those that reported high levels of stress were also had trouble making a 10 pound weight loss.  Those participants who slept the least and considered their lives stressful not only couldn’t lose weight they actually gained weight on what would be considered a healthy weight loss program.
Another study done by researchers from Columbia University identified stress and sleep deprivation as culprits in weight gain.  They showed that when people are sleep deprived (less than 4 hours of sleep for 6 nights), they ate an average of 329 more calories a day then when they were rested (8 hours a night for 6 nights).  They also found that the increase in calories was usually in the form of simple carbohydrates, sweets, and fast food.
Why do sleep deprivation and stress make us fat?  It appears as if hormones are responsible.  It is thought that lack of sleep and disruptions in our sleep cycles stimulates the hormone gherlin.  Gherlin stimulates our appetite.  Levels of another hormone, leptin go down.  Leptin is the hormone that tells us we are full or satisfied.
Another hormone that appears to be involved is cortisol.  Cortisol is the “stress” hormone that is released by our adrenal glands.  It controls blood pressure, blood sugar, and fat and sugar metabolism for fast energy. The end results of which can lead to elevations in blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight gain.  Cortisol also makes us hungry.  If our bodies perceive physical or psychological stress, cortisol levels rise.  This is a survival mechanism termed “the fight or flight response”.  Unfortunately we have so much stress (and lack of sleep) in our lives today; many of us have chronically elevated cortisol levels.  This leads to elevated blood pressure, sugar levels (diabetes), and weight gain.  Studies have shown that weight gain from cortisol is deposited in the abdominal area not the hips or backside.  This fat is termed inflammatory fat because it elevates inflammatory levels and is shown to increase cardiovascular diseases including heart attacks and strokes.
Getting enough sleep and finding ways to decrease stress are real issues in America today .Exercise, chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, and yoga have all been documented to decrease cortisol levels.  Meditation has also been shown to be effective in lowering stress and cortisol levels.   Slow deep breathing (4 breaths/minute) as well as visualization also decreases cortisol levels.  Aim for between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.  Although stress will always be with us trying some of the strategies can go a long way in how we perceive our stressors.