Over the past year, I finally lost the weight I had put on since having a baby. It only took 3 years…And I understand why. For 2 years after giving birth, in spite of eating very well and moving my body, the pounds were not coming off. The bloating was not budging, and the heaviness was not lightening up. All because of public health enemy #1: stress.
Yes, stress can make you and keep your body fat. Here’s how:
When under distress, such as fleeing from a predator, the body kicks into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. It causes a release of hormones that make it so that you can literally run for your life. Digestion slows down and blood gets re-directed to all four limbs and away from the internal organs. The heart pumps faster and alertness is sharpened. When you’re trying to save your own life, digestion takes a back seat, as do all the functions of the “rest and relaxation” (parasympathetic nervous system) response, which is the opposite of what happens during times of stress.
This stress (sympathetic nervous system) response is crucial to our survival in moments of emergency, whether it’s outrunning a tiger or lifting a car off your child. Once the danger is over, however, the body, in all its wisdom, stops releasing the stress hormones and returns to a state of homeostasis or equilibrium. In other words, the stress response is TEMPORARY.
When we are in a state of perpetual distress, the stress response never subsides. Hormones such as cortisol continue to be secreted and blood insulin levels remain higher than normal. This is because the body is intelligently assuming there’s a threat and goes into protective mode which includes the storage of extra fat in the cells as “reserves”. After all, who knows when this danger will pass, better put away all the energy we can in case of prolonged “famine”! The brain cannot differentiate between a real danger and a non-life-threatening one.
Stress of any kind that is not short-lived is unhealthy. The hormones released, (especially cortisol) cause inflammation in the body. They reduce levels of the “happy” hormone serotonin, increase blood sugar levels, decrease sensitivity to pain, reduce the effectiveness of the immune system and increase visceral fat. Visceral fat is hard to get rid of because it lodges itself in the abdomen around the viscera (the internal organs). It’s the stubborn belly fat.
For the first two years of my son’s life, I was in a state of perpetual distress. Though I did not experience post-partum depression, I did find myself in “post-partum stress dysfunction”, a term I coined when depression wasn’t feeling like the right word. I was overwhelmed, beyond exhausted and unable to recover from a traumatic birthing experience. To say that I was in “fight or flight” mode is an understatement. How could my body possibly shed excess pounds when it was fooled into thinking I was under attack? As I write this I am filled with gratitude, wonder and humility thinking of what this body endured and how it coped so marvelously. Thank you, body.
As sleep started to return into my life and my son grew to be able to walk and be more independent, I began to relax. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I can breathe again!” And so, without doing anything I hadn’t done before, the pounds started coming off. My body realized the “threat’ was over and slowly made its way back to homeostasis. There are still 10 stubborn pounds of visceral fat that I would like to shed, and I have a healthy plan for allowing that to happen (no fad diets here). But whether or not those pounds come off, I know that being in a state of “rest and relaxation” as much as possible is what is going to keep me healthy and sane.
Now over to you: are you overweight? Maybe you’re not currently living in “fight or flight” mode but are storing passed residue and accumulation of stress. Either way, awareness is the first step. Knowing that your body was reacting naturally to a perceived threat can help you start the healing journey.
I wish you rest and relaxation, and of course perfect health.
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