Mindfulness – a key to weight loss?
No doubt we live in a hyperactive world, our mind consistently stimulated, far more than our ancestors, resulting in an ever-active mind.
Science has been investigating the health implications (psychological, physiological and metabolic) of our hyper-aroused state, with lowered immunity, depression, and gastrointestinal issues just a few symptoms correlated with lack of mindfulness.
And it may very well be playing a part in weight gain.
Before we go further, we are not discussing weight gain here as judgment, but only out of the concern due to the health issues that surround being overweight. People come in all shapes and sizes, and it is good to become comfortable with where your healthy, stable weight is. But carrying kilos beyond this can put burden on your body that needs to be addressed in order to live a long and happy life.
Whilst human bodies are complex, and there are a myriad of factors at play, could a major contributor to our increasing weight be stress?
Implications of stress – the lowdown
Let’s consider Judy. Judy is busy. She works 4 days a week, cares for her aging mum 1-2 days a week, has three kids, and her husband flies in and out of the mines for work, 3 weeks on, 1 week at home.
Any guesses where some stresses may stem from for Judy?
Looking at her situation in slightly more detail, it becomes more apparent. Work is busy, her boss likes to nag, but she considers herself lucky as she loves what she does. Kids need her support at home – preparing food, washing, homework. Judy’s mum is finding it harder to hold a coherent conversation, when she used to be the giver of hilarity around the dinner table. Judy’s husband is only present every few weeks, leaving house maintenance to Judy, and hot dates are a thing of the past.
Judy say she isn’t necessarily unhappy with her life, but isn’t necessarily happy either. She is tired, and she craves carbs, is gaining weight, feels achy, and sleeps on and off for about 6 hours. Come 3pm, coffee and Krispy Kremes are on the menu.
This is not an unusual description for someone’s modern day life. Yet, this is a picture of someone who will likely have elevated cortisol – the stress hormone, which has a raft of implications, including weight gain, if left unaddressed long-term.
What’s stress got to do with it?
There have been multiple studies attempting to correlate mindfulness activities with weight loss, most with dramatic effects, though few manage to identify the changes made and underlying biological mechanisms at play.1
So let’s try to piece some of this puzzle together.
Looking at Judy, cortisol is being pumped out, thinking Judy needs to be ready to run away from a threat (the hypothetical ‘tiger’). In this state, the body retains glucose in the blood stream so it is ready to use instantly when running from danger.
Therefore insulin sensitivity drops. Carbohydrate cravings increase, energy wains, and mood is impacted.
Simultaneously, thyroid hormone production is blunted. The thyroid is the metabolism organ master, but in a stressful state, metabolism is not priority, and the body feels a hyper functioning thyroid coupled with stress puts too much pressure on the heart – and we kinda need our heart to work, like, always.
And weight is gained.
In our society, considering yourself overweight can possibly add another level of stress, by contributing to low self-esteem.
There is A LOT going on! We are complex beings! And everything is interrelated. As mentioned, Judy’s case is not abnormal. And if she continues without addressing the stressors or her stress resilience, stress hormone production can eventually diminish, bringing with it constant fatigue and illness.
What to do? De-stress.
We are stressed. Whether we know it or not. So we need to equip ourselves with tools to cope, to build resilience.
Here are some ideas to help you turn down the stress dial, quench the brain fire, and find some presence, with the goal to boost overall health and happiness (and perhaps weight loss as a side effect, if desired):
- Breathing techniques
Undertake deep diaphragmatic breathing – one of the only known activators of the parasympathetic nervous system, taking you to the rest, digest and repair zone.
Get an app! Start with 10mins either first thing in the morning or before you sleep at night. When you feel your breathe shorten or stress levels rise throughout the day, take a few minutes with the app to find some head space.
A proven de-stressor. Find an activity you love – either solo, with a friend or team, fast or slow paced. Just move.
- Sleeping deeply
This is integral to living well.There are many techniques to improving quality and duration of sleep. Practice deep breathing or meditate before bed. Leave any screens behind at least 1 hour before bed. Do not overeat at dinner. Get your temperature in bed right. Limit the light and noise infiltrating your bedroom.
- Start the day with good fats and protein
Good fats are good for energy production by the energy machines in our cells – the mitochondria. Including good quality slow burning foods at the start of the day can help moderate blood glucose fluctuations, and ultimately lead to less sugar and stimulant cravings.
By Angela Johnson
- Olson KL & Emery CF 2015, ‘Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review’, Psychosomatic Medicine, .vol. 77, no. 1, pp.59-67, viewed 25 April 2016