If you're stressed about your weight, here's a good reason to relax: stress is often a major cause of weight gain and relaxation can ease your path to healthy weight loss.
My simple steps for relaxation are listed below, to help you get started in calming your mind and recharging your body.
But first, here is a quick look at how stress can affect body weight.
One way stress impacts body weight is behavioral. You just may eat more when you're stressed, looking for quick comfort in food.
The other way is hormonal. Chronic stress raises the blood level of a hormone called cortisol, which is made by your adrenal glands. Cortisol raises your blood sugar and causes fat cells to grow larger. Persistently high levels of cortisol will increase your amount of belly fat, in particular.
Laboratory studies show that high cortisol levels interfere with your body's response to hormones that are important for weight regulation such as leptin and insulin. (1, 2)
As I explain in my book, The Fat Resistance Diet, leptin is a hormone that should enable you to maintain a lean body weight, because it decreases appetite and speeds metabolism. Resistance to leptin interferes with weight loss.
Cortisol also disturbs insulin, a hormone that reduces blood sugar. (3) Resistance to insulin helps to create type 2 diabetes. In addition, cortisol turns off the gene for producing adiponectin, a hormone that decreases inflammation and may protect against heart disease. (4)
And some studies also show that cortisol increases food consumption by turning off your brain's natural appetite-suppressing signals. (5)
Of course, this information itself can be very stressful. Kind of like the command, "You must relax, or else ... " Seeing relaxation as an obligation or a goal pretty much defeats its purpose. And if your day is packed with things you must do, adding another thing you must do can be self-defeating.
There's a simple technique which I use that can make relaxation almost automatic. (6) It helps you quickly identify tension in your body and learn to dispel it. Here's how it goes:
- Sit in a comfortable chair with a straight back and good back support. Let your feet rest flat on the ground while your hands rest on your thighs, with your arms falling comfortably by your sides.
- Gently draw your shoulders down toward the floor. Feel the stretch in the muscle that connects your neck and shoulders (the trapezius). Recognize how much tension was in that muscle before you lowered your shoulders. Now relax your shoulders and let them settle into a natural position. Notice how much lower they are now than before you stretched them downward.
- Gently stretch your fingers along your thighs, as if you were trying to wrap them around your leg. Then relax the stretch of your hands and let your fingers rest comfortably. Observe how much tension existed in your hands before this stretch.
- Without opening your mouth or parting your lips, draw your jaw downwards, towards your chest. Then relax your jaw. Feel how far it has dropped and how the tension in your jaw muscles has slackened. Pay attention to the position of your tongue. Allow it to float easily in your mouth, without pressing against the roof or the floor. You may notice an increase in the flow of saliva, a sign of relaxation which makes this a good exercise to perform before a meal.
- Imagine that a gentle hand is smoothing your forehead, relaxing the furrows of your brow. Imagine the hand traveling over the top of your head and down the back of your neck, relaxing each muscle it touches with its caress. This brings your attention back to your shoulders.
- Run through this set of stretches and images one more time.
- Observe your breath. Feel the air pass in through your nostrils and down the back of your throat. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. This breath should not fill your chest, because it is a relaxed breath, not a deep full breath. Instead, when you breathe in, your belly should move outward as the diaphragm pushes down. This is sometimes called belly breathing -- the calmest form of breathing. Chest breathing is only for exertion, so if you find that your chest rises and your abdomen flattens when you breathe in, see if you can reverse the breathing pattern so that your chest stays still and your belly expands.
- One more time, relax your jaw and tongue. Imagine once again the gentle hand smoothing your forehead and caressing your head and neck.
Think of this little exercise as an excellent way to calm your nervous system and begin relaxing your body and mind. You can do it almost anywhere, as many times a day as you care to. Once you know it, you can relax with it in as little as 30 seconds. It's an efficient way to begin reducing chronically high cortisol levels and feel invigorated.
Leo Galland, M.D. is the founder of pilladvised.com, an online resource for learning about medications, supplements and food. Sign up for his weekly Pill Advised Newsletter, watch his videos on YouTube and join his Facebook page.
1) Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 1999 Nov-Dec;15(6):427-41. "Neuroendocrine perturbations as a cause of insulin resistance." Bjorntorp P.
2) J Biol Chem. 2004 May 7;279(19):19658-64. "Rapid inhibition of leptin signaling by glucocorticoids in vitro and in vivo." Ishida-Takahashi R, Uotani S, Abe T, Degawa-Yamauchi M, Fukushima T, Fujita N, Sakamaki H, Yamasaki H, Yamaguchi Y, Eguchi K.
3) Med Sci Monit. 2003 Feb;9(2):RA35-9. "Stress induced disturbances of the HPA axis: a pathway to Type 2 diabetes?" Rosmond R.
4) Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2002 Jan 25; 290(3):1084-9 "Hormonal regulation of adiponectin gene expression in 3T3-L1 adipocytes." Fasshauer M, Klein J, Neumann S, Eszlinger M, Paschke R.
5) Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Jun;24 Suppl 2:S77-9."Glucocorticoids and neuroendocrine function." Cavagnini F, Croci M, Putignano P, Petroni ML, Invitti C.
6) Patient Care. 1980 14: 138-72. "Easing Stress: How to Help Patients Learn to Relax," Galland L.
This information is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to constitute (i) medical advice or counseling, (ii) the practice of medicine or the provision of health care diagnosis or treatment, (iii) or the creation of a physician--patient relationship. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your doctor promptly.