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Weight Loss and Stress Hormones

With Libby Weaver

Weight Loss and Stress Hormones

Weight loss and stress hormones are closely interlinked. Our stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, significantly influence whether we gain or lose weight, so it is important to understand how these hormones affect our nervous system and how we can manage them, before we set out to make our clothes looser.

The human nervous system has numerous divisions, two of which are crucial to weight loss. The first is the sympathetic nervous system, our flight or fight response, telling us to run if we are in danger or fight if we are threatened. When your sympathetic nervous system is dominant (when you're stressed and rushed), your body thinks that it is in danger, whether this danger is perceived or real.

Adrenalin is our acute stress hormone. It was designed to save our lives so it seems ironic that a hormone once designed for this purpose is now having such a detrimental effect on our health. It communicates to every cell in your body that your life is being threatened. It puts you on "red alert" and when we live our lives in a constant rush, this fight or flight response goes into over-drive.

The body only ever has two fuel sources it can use, glucose or fat. If your body perceives it is in danger and needs to get out of the situation quickly it will access a quick burning fuel source and this is supplied in the form of glucose. I so often find that my clients are stuck in this very situation: they are stuck in sugar burning and subsequently they crave it too.  After long periods of relying on adrenalin, we then run the risk of increasing the production of our long-term stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol signals to the body that food is scarce and so anything consumed must be stored as fat for later.

Going on a diet is not the solution when cortisol is high. The focus must be on reducing cortisol production and there are a number of ways to do this. The first one is free to us all and it's called breathing. How do you breathe over a typical morning for you? My number one "dietary" tip is always to breathe. It sounds so simple, yet many of us rarely fill our lungs beyond half way and this has the potential to impact on many body functions from the beating of our heart to our clarity of thought, as well as fat burning.

The second part of the nervous system and one that is not often discussed is the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest, repair and digest response. The most simple and effective way to access the parasympathetic nervous system is through our breath. When the parasympathetic nervous system is allowed to function optimally, our body focuses on all processes it perceives as non-vital to saving our life under when it is under threat including digestion, skin regeneration and telling our bodies that it is safe enough to shed some extra kilos. For a lot of people it is their stress response holding them back from losing weight. They are stuck in burning glucose and rarely access their fat stores as their bodies constantly feel they have to get themselves out of danger.

Here are some simple tips to help activate your parasympathetic nervous system:
- Breath is the only way we can consciously access our parasympathetic nervous system and communicate to that part of our brain that we are "safe." Incorporate long, slow breaths into you daily rituals: set a reminder on your phone, or make it a habit to do five diaphragmatic breaths at the traffic lights or when waiting for the kettle to boil.
- Make your fuel go further: add more good fat to your meals, particularly lunch, in the form of avocado, nuts, organic butter or nut butters, tahini, oily fish and observe if your desire for sweet food mid-afternoon diminishes. Good fats slow down gastric emptying meaning you feel fuller for longer.
- Calm in the Chaos: if the traffic drives you crazy commit to only playing relaxing music whilst driving. Spa music, soul music anything that means you aren't amping up your nervous system further.
- Simple Swaps: consider whether you are using caffeine to amp yourself up and wine to wind down. Simply swap caffeine for green tea and wine for sparkling water to give your sympathetic nervous system a break.

Gratitude: it is impossible to feel overwhelmed or stressed when you feel gratitude. Volunteer, give thanks to those who have passed before us, or recite positive affirmations, what ever works for you.

Always take time to slow down. Live, breathe, and learn. Take a look around you and be grateful for all that you are and all that you have.

(Broadcast: 12 Mar 2012)