Chronic Stress is Linked To Higher Obesity Risk

Anyone who has ever struggled with emotional eating likely knows how incredibly hard it can be to deal with cravings that seemingly come out of nowhere during stressful times. Left unaddressed, emotional eating can become a bad habit that makes it difficult to reach or maintain a healthy weight.

Now, new research has confirmed that there’s a link between chronic stress and obesity. It’s been thought that chronic stress influenced obesity levels, but previous research couldn’t confirm it from cortisol levels (a stress hormone) taken by blood, saliva or urine samples. These measures don’t reflect long-term stress very accurately since hormones can fluctuate depending on what time of day it is and other short-term factors.

Related: 5 Ways Chronic Stress is Bad For Your Body

To capture the effects of long-term stress, researchers turned to a relatively new measure of obtaining chronically high cortisol levels — hair samples. By obtaining 2cm long hair samples as closely to the scalp as possible from over 2,500 men and women ages 54 or older, the researchers could examine about two months worth of accumulated cortisol levels.

The researchers found that those who had higher levels of cortisol were more likely to have a higher body weight, BMI and waist circumference. The highest cortisol levels were associated with people who fell into the obese category, meaning they had a BMI greater than or equal to 30 plus a waist circumference greater than or equal to 102 centimeters for men and 88 centimeters for women.

The findings suggest there’s a strong link between chronic stress and obesity, but the researchers still don’t know whether chronic stress is a cause. The study was also conducted only on older adults, so more research is needed to determine whether these findings might be consistent with younger adults.

A higher waist circumferences is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and premature death, so if researchers can find out more about the relationship between chronically elevated cortisol levels and obesity, it could help them develop new treatments for obesity. While stress can’t exactly be eliminated entirely, there are lots of lifestyle tweaks you can make to help you manage it more effectively:

  • Sleep better. Sleep is necessary for restoration. Make sure your sleep environment helps you sleep well for at least 7 to 9 hours a night.
  • Meditate. Meditation helps us expand our awareness so we don’t get completely swept up in thoughts and emotions causing us stress. Even as little as 10 minutes a day can help.
  • Be intentional. Feeling out of control is stressful. Consider creating a to-do list, writing a morning journal entry, practicing visualization to help you organize your thoughts and stick to what you need to do.
  • Say ‘no’ more often. You can’t always do everything for everyone. Learn to value your time and energy so that you can keep a healthy balance between your busy schedule, helping out others and your own self-care.

Want to know more about how you can beat stress? Here are several more science-backed ways to reduce cortisol levels naturally.

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