Tired but wired: why you can't lose weight?

Eating and exercise aren't the only things that impact our weight and health. Physical and emotional stress can also tip the balance of our nervous system and our scales.

Take, for example, Susan a strikingly tall and physically beautiful woman, whose nutrition was top notch and whose booze consumption wasn't big.

But, she had started putting on weight and couldn't understand why.

So, she went to see dietition and biochemist, Dr Libby Weaver. Weaver herself was stumped by Susan's mysterious situation and fossicked for extra information. But, Susan was adamant nothing in her life had changed to explain the weight gain.

Except, that is, her intake of coffee.

She had gone from one a day to as many as four a day over a three to four month period. "But, they are all black coffees, so there are no calories in them," she assured Weaver.

At this revelation, Weaver's eyes lit up and when Susan saw the look on her face she began to cry. "Please don't take them away from me," she begged.

Weaver didn't take her coffee from her, she simply asked her to drop back to one a day for one month and see what happened. "I did nothing else for this woman," Weaver said. "Not one other change to her dietary intake, and four weeks later, she burst through my door telling me she had lost four kilos in four weeks."

The reason was simple, Weaver explains in her book Rushing Woman's Syndrome and it had nothing to do with a reduction of calories.

"When you consume caffeine, it sends a message to the pituitary gland in your brain that it needs to send a message to your adrenal glands to make adrenalin ... [and] get you out of danger that doesn't actually exist ...

"When adrenalin is released, your blood sugar elevates to provide you with more energy, your blood pressure and pulse rate rise to provide more oxygen to the muscles, which tense in preparation for action [the fight or flight response] ... you make insulin to deal with that elevation in blood sugar. And insulin is one of our primary fat storage hormones ...

"This biochemical state can either lead you to slenderness [often at the expense of your nervous system health] or fat storage, because insulin ... will firstly convert unused glucose from your blood into glycogen and store it in your muscles and what is left over will be converted into body fat."

The biochemical dance produced by chronic stress, along with its emotional and physical impact, is what Weaver explains in Rushing Woman's Syndrome.

"We're tired, but wired," she says. "So many of the women [I saw] kept talking about being so exhausted or so busy or so stressed. I talk to a biased group of the population. But, I kept hearing the same issues arising - about menstruation, digestion, sleep and the ability to remain calm and patient and kind ... I kept hearing the word 'pressure.'"

In our information-saturated society, Weaver doesn't believe it is a lack of knowledge that causes people to be overweight or unhealthy, rather this sense of emotional 'pressure' can lead us to make poor choices.

"I was at uni for 14 years," she says. "But, then when you go and work in the real world, you learn very quickly that often what you thought is not practical ... The whole idea that you could just tell some one how to eat and they'd do it ... it's not a lack of knowledge that leads someone to polish off a packet of chocolate biscuits after dinner ... of course people need great info, they need accurate info, they need an idea around what's the right thing to nourish their own body ...but, they also need to understand what drives their behaviour...So my work brings together the biochemistry and the emotional [factors]."

While the cause of many weight and health problems are often biochemical and emotional, she says that stress compounds both. For when we are stressed emotionally for an extended period, our biochemistry changes and cortisol kicks in.

"Cortisol traditionally kicked in when we had to deal with chronic stress - famine, wars and floods," Weaver explains. "When there was no food, it slowed the metabolism down. It thinks it's doing the body a big favour."

"[But] if cortisol tells every cell of your body that food is scarce, and your metabolism slows down as a result, and you continue to eat and exercise in the same way you always have, your clothes will slowly get tighter. It doesn't matter how amazingly you eat ... it is very difficult, if not impossible, to decrease body fat until the cortisol issue is resolved."

This can help to explain why intense exercise and curbing calories can be counter-productive in times of stress and why weight-loss doesn't just come down to the calories we consume.

It is also the reason that Weaver believes we need to bring the body back into balance first by addressing our stress issues before our weight issues. "Most people believe that in order to become healthy, they must lose some weight. I believe the opposite is true; in order to lose weight, we must become healthy," she says.

"Once the body is better balanced and healthier, body fat is readily burnt."

Weaver's tips for bringing the body back into biochemical balance:

  • Eat real, whole food. "Amp up your greens."
  • Invest in your adrenal glands (yoga, tai chi, meditation etcetera).
  • If you can't get away from your desk, schedule a reminder on your computer to stop and take 20 long, slow breaths into the diaphram.
  • Be honest about how caffeine and alcohol are affecting you. "We know in ourselves [whether we're consuming too much]."
  • Schedule downtime. "Rest and recreation, are as important as work."
  • Don't compromise your sleep.
  • Take time just being grateful "[Many people] are losing the ability to see how privileged they are."
  • Start to understand what drives your behaviour. "[For many, food is their] pleasure [but, they are eating to] avoid feeling emotional pain."

The story Tired but wired: why you can't lose weight? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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