How anxiety can lead to obesity

I suspect most people are familiar with that saying, “comfort eating” – a well used phrase to justify that chocolate bar when feeling stressed or down.  However, it is not the calories in that chocolate bar alone that could lead a person who struggles with anxiety and stress to put weight on.

It is national obesity week this week and weight loss is often quoted as the second most popular New Years resolution.  However if weight gain is related to stress and anxiety, then dieting is unlikely to lead to a positive outcome!

The feelings of anxiety and stress lead to chemical changes in the body.  Most people are familiar with Adrenalin but alongside this, there is another chemical called cortisol.  Both these chemicals are part of the fight of flight response – preparing the body to either run or fight the thing that is creating the fear.  Perfect if you have something to run from or fight, but if it’s your impending tax return that is stressing you – ie something that is not tangible, then the chemicals keep flowing.  And this is where the problem starts.

Repeated or prolonged elevation of cortisol leads to a number of physiological changes:

  • A movement of fat from stored areas into visceral fat cells located under the muscle, deep in the abdomen.
  • An increase in the development of specialised fat storage cells.  These visceral fat cells have more cortisol receptors leading to a downward spiral!
  • Cortisol impacts the liver, leading to higher glucose levels in the blood and less in the muscles.  These cells then send hunger messages to the brain leading to the desire to eat. Studies are now showing that cortisol indirectly influences part of the brain called the hypothalamus which has a role in appetite resulting in stimulation of the appetite.

So coming back to obesity awareness week…..Anxiety is a response from a subconscious trigger.  We tend to associate diets with ‘will power’ – the conscious mind.  And in the battle of these two, the subconscious is the likely victor!  Few people would consider addressing their stress and anxiety levels as a way of reducing weight.  The benefits of doing so however go beyond weight management.

For an approach that also works at the subconscious level, creating a level playing field to take on weight management, watch this short video.  

Caroline Cavanagh is author of Anxiety Alchemy and winner of the APCTC Consultant of the Year 2016

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