Control Stress for Healthy Eating and Ageing
Research taken from Dr Elissa Epel and Dr Andrew Huberman
What is Stress? – Many different dimensions to the word stress, there is good and bad stress and chronic and acute stress. Technically, it means anytime we feel overwhelmed or the demands are too much for our resources.
So much of our lives is about meeting challenges and we are not going to ever get rid of stressful situations completely. If anything, they are increasing so it really comes down to not the stressors or what happens to us but how we react to them or our stress response.
It’s worth thinking about what stressors are in your life that may be difficult – ongoing situations like caregiving, health problems, or work stress and how are you coping with it? When something happen’s we mount a stress response and we recover which is positive. Problems arise when we keep it alive in our head with our thoughts – our thoughts are our most common form of stress. Overthinking or ruminating can lead to chronic stress which can affect us in ways not just mentally but also physically.
The Most Effective ways for Dealing with Overthinking and Ruminating On Stressful Topics
3 Key Areas:
Firstly, we need to have some kind of awareness of how our mind works or whether are thoughts are real. Instead of accepting every thought that comes into our heads as gospel we must learn to identify and challenge what thoughts are serving us in a positive way and what thoughts are irrational. I have a very acute stress response to flying in an aeroplane, I start thinking about being stuck on a plane where I can’t get off and the turbulence makes me think we are going to crash. Quite a common stress response for a lot of people. I have gotten better at separating myself from my thoughts and now I understand that these thoughts are just thoughts, not reality, if I don’t attach myself to them it helps get my stress under control. In my case I have released this type of stress thru awareness and mindset, this may also be a strategy that can help you manage yours.
Post covid 46% of people found they are experiencing stress of some description (more research has suggested these numbers can even be higher). This can have more serious implications for young adults who experience 4 x the level of stress to others and minority groups. People over 65 tend to be less stressed as the research found they have already been thru so much in their lives and are more resilient and better at problem solving.
- Changing the Body
Certain studies have found that High Intensity Interval or HIIT training is a great way to release endorphins. These endorphins make us feel good and also help us work stress out of the body which makes us feel positive and happy. Exercise has also been proven to be 4 x more effective than anti-depressants so next time you are feeling stressed go out for a walk, hit the gym or play sport.
- Changing the Scene
By changing the scene try to remove yourself from the environment that may be contributing to your stress. Find an environment that is calming and comforting places that have your pets, favourite photographs, smells or music can help.
Different Forms of Stress and How we can Recognise Them:
Stress is not always related to our mind, it can be measured thru the nervous system or holding tension in the body, it is sympathetically dominated (fight or flight). Our bodies when stressed are vigilant and are searching for safety cues to help alleviate our feelings of overwhelm. When we are stressed, we are mobilising a lot more energy (ATP) than we need too, this huge energy expenditure will often leave our bodies feeling exhausted and tired. Some other physical signs and symptoms of being stressed are clenching your jaw or hands, shallow or difficulty breathing and sweating.
Acute (short term) stress response – creates a situation where every hormone or cell in our body is having a stress response. This acute stress response is not always negative as it allows us to re-orient, focus and problem solve which is necessary for coping with life. Even if it last minutes or hours we eventually recover, this is also know as ‘Eustress’ or good stress.
Moderately Stressful events may take days or months to cope with – it is helpful to notice in the moment right now am I coping acutely with something or can I restore it?
Chronically Stressful (long term) situations which go on for years, many of us have these in our lives eg caregiving which may be hard to change. Whilst we may not be able to change these in a hurry we can use radical acceptance strategies to live well with them. Really important for people who feel like they have a harder life. A radical acceptance strategy may be along the lines of allowing yourself to feel negative feelings, find practices that make the stress feel easier to cope with breathwork, meditation and learning to accept your resistant behaviours.
Relationship Between Stress and Eating:
Most people when they feel stress either eat more or less food. For some people, stress makes our digestion shut down which reduces our appetite. This is a high sympathetic stress response (fight or flight) is triggered. This leads to more alertness and arousal and it can also lead to losing weight.
The more common pattern is binge eating or over eating when we experience stress and that looks different both in the brain and biologically. What is looks like in the body is the stress response is driving cravings and high insulin or an insulin resistant state. What goes along with that is a tendency to be overweight or obese. Stress can exacerbate tendencies to overeat or binge, not feel satiated and compulsive traits. We tend to crave high sugary foods, fast foods and processed foods. With repeated bouts of stress we will just gain weight particularly in the intra-abdominal area. This has been demonstrated in rat and mice studies and now also with people. 10 year study by Dr Elissa Epel found that what was happening in rats and mice was also happening with people.
In studies with mice if you stress them out and give them sugary foods to eat they develop binge eating and get compulsive. They get metabolic syndrome where their belly fat expands, which is an immediate source of energy when we are stressed. If our body thinks we are under chronic stress we are going to store abdominal fat which is easily mobilised.
Breaking Overeating Cycles and Mindfulness:
In certain weight loss trial’s (Dr Elisa Epel) in her lab researched the way to break the cycle of compulsive eating what she found was:
- In healthy, mindful eating trials they found that mindful eating is not going to cause a lot of weight loss. But the people who benefitted most from learning this kind of calm, self-regulation where you check in with your hunger you slow down, you increase your awareness of your body (teraseptic awareness). That type of skill is really critical for people with compulsive eating. In these trials by Dr Epel they found that people with compulsive eating who took on this mindfulness skill do better in terms of their long-term weight loss, insulin resistance and glucose.
- The ‘Positive Stress Pathway’ is also important also for breaking the compulsive eating cycle. Examples include high intensity interval training (HIIT) or other ways we can get rid of stress thru the body can help with the cravings.
If you are finding yourself in that Binge eating mode or using food to comfort then you can use the following strategies.
Top Down Check In
The compulsive drive to eat is one of our strongest impulses. If we have developed that neural pathway it is important to develop awareness around separating emotions from hunger. These two can easily get intertwined together, so labelling how you are feeling, numbering your hunger from 1-10, asking yourself, am I really hungry or is it just boredom? These strategies help people and if you do this check in right before you eat it is the most beneficial.
Ride the Craving or Surf the Urge:
This can be practiced with foods or drinks that are highly addictive such as sugar ie. Soft drinks. This practice includes watching your craving pass and knowing that it is only a matter of time that you can surf without jumping to consuming. This practice helps some people the exercising, the changing the scene the going for a walk is another strategy.
Stress Intervention Studies & Ageing
Meditation has been found to slow down the biological ageing in people. These meditation interventions we practice – even short-term ones have been proven to lengthen cells that help slow down the rate of ageing.
In addition to this meditation has been proven to reduce our Inflammatory pathways and boosts our protective enzymes which also helps slow our ageing. These studies suggest that if someone was to continue meditating they might keep up this slower rate of ageing even more.
So in summary the most effective 3 ways you can reduce your stress is by:
- Being aware and mindful of it,
- Secondly change your body – the power of movement
- Thirdly – change your scene – seek out environments that help you feel calm
To manage overeating and compulsive eating:
- Top Down Approach – mindfulness around emotions and hunger
- Positive Stress Pathway – again thru HIIT or other forms of exercise.