How You React to Stress May Affect How Your Clothes Fit
"Cortisol and negative mood may reflect greater vulnerability to stress," Epel says. "It may also be that cortisol is directly affecting appetite. Cortisol can increase insulin, which stimulates appetite."
The bottom line: "If you're an emotional eater, you will likely have trouble keeping weight off," she tells WebMD.
"Epel has provided several pieces to the puzzle," says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Fight Fat After Forty.
What Peeke calls "toxic stress" is "defined as any stress that is long term and associated with a perception of helplessness, hopelessness, and a sense of defeat," she says. "It's having a micromanaging boss, rotten marriage for 10 years, kid who is a juvenile delinquent -- and you're trying real hard to be resilient about it."
The result: Stress causes cortisol levels to be elevated all the time, and that tends to facilitate the deposit of fat deep in the belly, Peeke says. That kind of fat is the most dangerous to health, she says. "It's what I call "toxic fat" -- that deeply deposited intra-abdominal fat that occurs in thin people. It's the people who have thin legs, thin arms, and the little bowling-ball belly.
"She found that you don't have to be fat to have that toxic weight. You can be of average weight," Peeke tells WebMD. And "it can happen as early as age 30 in women. That deep-belly fat is caused by toxic stress. It's what I've said before, that it's not just what you weigh, it's where you weigh it. It's those extra 5, 6, 7 pounds deep in your belly [that] is part of the "metabolic syndrome" -- the constellation of toxic weight, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and cancer," she says.
Now that you know it's bad, how do you prevent it?
- Mind control: Start thinking in a more stress-resilient way, Peeke says. "Get a grip. Get a better job. Or just get realistic. "Realize your boss is unhappy and has no life and his major joy in life is to make yours miserable. It's all in the head. You have to learn the fine art of regrouping."
- Mouth control: Avoid the temptation to eat, Peeke says. Avoid white sugars and white starches like bread, rice, potatoes, pasta -- all of which increase insulin levels, thereby increasing the drive to binge eat.
- Put muscles to work: Through even small bits of aerobic activity -- just walking around for five minutes at a time -- it's possible to neutralize the stress response, Peeke says. "It absolutely makes a huge difference. Every hour take five minutes and do something."
Epel adds a few more suggestions:
- Tune into feelings: Ask yourself if this is hunger or a reaction to stress, sadness, loneliness, or anger. If emotions are triggering eating, wait out the urge to eat. "The urge is going to pass," she says.
- Keep a list of constructive ways to resist: Take a walk, call a certain friend, chew gum. "It's easier to substitute one behavior for another," she tells WebMD.
- Check into formal stress reduction programs, which have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. "If you are struggling with stress in your life, any type of relaxation -- whether meditation, exercise, or yoga" --may help.