WE all know that too much stress in our lives can make us ill.  But did you know that your high stress levels could also be contributing to your expanding waistline?

In sensing a stressor, the body acts like it is going to starve, slows down the metabolism to conserve energy and releases cortisol to help store fat.

The female body is programmed to respond to stress by releasing the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol through the adrenal glands.  These hormones cause (amongst other short-term benefits) increased energy levels, preparing the body for the ‘fight or flight’ responses to stress.   

Cortisol also has another role and that is to help the body to build fat stores. As one of the main stressors for early cave women was the stress of hunger and fear of starvation, cortisol coursing through the body increased the fat stores and helped stave off the imminent threat. The body further dealt with the threat of starvation by slowing down the metabolic rate (the rate at which we burn calories) in order to conserve energy levels.

Cortisol: A main stressor for early cave womenCortisol: A main stressor for early cave women

Stresses for modern women are not the same as those 300,000 years ago. Very few of us in the western world ever experience real hunger let alone face starvation.  However, the body’s responses to stress are the same as they were in the past. In sensing a stressor, the body acts like it is going to starve, slows down the metabolism to conserve energy and releases cortisol to help store fat. When the stress becomes an ever growing toxic presence in our life then we’re in trouble. 

As women in our 40s and 50s we can feel we’re expected to fulfil a number of roles: wife/mother/grandmother/aunt; ambitious career woman; devoted friend and confidante, and at the same time to have it all: beautiful home; well-rounded social life; great figure; impeccable style – the lists go on. These pressures, along with difficult life events such as death, divorce, redundancy etc can leave us feeling permanently stressed and anxious.

Feeling permanently stressed and anxious?Feeling permanently stressed and anxious?

When we are in a state of prolonged toxic stress our body continually releases cortisol (to save us from starvation) thus piling on the pounds. Our metabolic rate also remains lowered to conserve energy meaning we don’t burn calories as quickly and so can’t burn off the fat we already had easily, let alone the extra that cortisol is contributing to the party. 

Oh and just in case you hadn’t already guessed, this fat that cortisol helps the body to store – it stores it on your waistline.

So, it makes sense to reduce your cortisol levels but just how do you do this?

First, you should look to your nutrition to help you lower cortisol and also restore harmony to your vitamin and mineral levels which take a battering from your body’s efforts to produce the cortisol it needs.

Cortisol levels can be reduced by making sure you get plenty of omega 3 oils such as those found in oily fish such as salmon to your diet. Some other foods worth considering are walnuts and cocoa (the kind found in 85% + organic dark chocolate – not Dairy Milk). Be careful of the quantities though, a handful of nuts and a couple of squares of chocolate will suffice. Tulsi Tea (from the Thai Holy Basil plant) has been found to be great for lowering cortisol too. It’s an acquired taste but why not try a cup or two in the afternoon/evening to reduce the amount of cortisol in your body.

Tulsi TeaTulsi Tea

To boost vitamin C and magnesium (these take the biggest battering from the adrenal glands working overtime) get lots of dark green and leafy veggies in your diet, as well as citrus fruits (pulp rather than juice) for boosting vitamin c and nuts and seeds for boosting magnesium.

As well as nutrition take some time to focus on your mind and body. Try the following stress busting tips to help:

1. Find ways to relax. 

Everyone is different, but maybe meditating; listening to music; going for a walk in the countryside or taking a bath might help.  Whatever your thing is, make sure you take at least five minutes a day just for you.

2. Be kind to yourself. 

Think about your inner voice - Are the messages you are giving yourself positive or negative? Are you adding unnecessary stress to your life by setting unrealistic goals and having unrealistic measures of success/beauty etc?

3. Exercise. 

Release the feel good endorphins by getting your heart rate up and working up a sweat. Go for high intensity, resistance base exercises to maximise your fat burning potential.

Release the feel good endorphins by going for a walkRelease the feel good endorphins by going for a walk

4. Get proper rest. 

Make sure you get enough, good quality sleep. Try to be in bed by 10.30pm at the latest and sleep in a cool dark room. Somewhere between seven and nine hours of good quality sleep will help restore your body’s energy levels. A lack of proper sleep can raise cortisol levels even further, thus exacerbating your problems.

All of these steps should help you to get your hormones in balance again and restart the fat burning furnace inside you.

I’d love to know what your stress busting strategies are. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts with other readers.

Sara PerrySara PerrySara Perry is a Personal Trainer & Development Coach passionate about helping women over the age of 40 live fitter, happier and healthier lives. 

For more information visit www.renaissance4women.com or email info@renaissance4women.com

Click here to read Sara's previous article about peri menopause and the muffin top.