Stress is present during the holidays and so are cookies, cakes, and sugar.  This is a dangerous combination that can lead to weight gain and more.  Why does the body tend to put on those pesky holiday pounds? The simple answer is stress and the fight or flight response.  The science behind the stress response occurs when the body is thrown out of homeostasis and the body perceives danger. This can be the “danger” of the in laws coming into town or the end of the fourth quarter coming to a close. When this occurs, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates epinephrine to be released into the blood stream which causes a variety of changes preparing the body for the “fight or flight” response.  The main component of the stress response is known as the HPA Axis, which includes the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenals.  The main hormone, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), is released when the body perceives danger. This hormone signals the anterior pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).  ACTH targets the adrenal cortex, which signals the adrenals to release cortisol, the stress hormone.

Three reasons why stress can cause us to gain weight:  1) Stress changes our digestion 2) Stress can create fluctuating blood sugar levels 3) Stress drives us towards wanting a reward system.

The unfortunate truth is the body alters our digestion when it is in a stressed state which can lead to additional unwanted weight gain.  Those extra holiday pounds are due to more than just the extra sugar intake. When we are stressed our body releases cortisol in addition to norepinephrine and epinephrine.  When these hormones are present our bodies lessens its response to insulin.  Insulin increase glycogen and adipose formation (increased fat) by decreasing the body’s ability to burn fat.  The result is those 5-10 winter pounds.

Stress can also cause hypoglycemia, low blood sugar.  Low blood sugar not only affects energy levels, but can also cause the Grinch to appear from being hangry.  Cortisol helps the body to stabilize glucose levels in the blood, but the constant stress created by the holiday season can create blood sugar imbalance leading to hypoglycemic episodes and cause the body to crave quick carbohydrates like candy.

Stress also affects the dopamine pathway.  Dopamine is considered the “reward neurotransmitter.” By activating this pathway, cortisol increase the desire for pleasure.  This can lead for the desire of palatable foods such as sugar, fat, and salt.  The high stress situation drives us towards the palatable Christmas goodies.

The body is wise and the craving for Christmas treats are not unwarranted, but here are a few ways to avoid stress affecting your new year’s resolution:

  • Eat within the first hour of waking up to help stabilize blood sugar levels.
  • Eat consistent meals throughout the day, every 2-3 hours.
  • Try to have a healthy combinations of protein, fat, and a complex carbohydrate.
  • Make sure to take in electrolytes and minerals in your water.
  • Take a few moments every few hours to take a few deep, meditative breaths.

Remember to focus on the joy of the season and the love of friends and family for pleasure.  Happy Holidays from Life. Health. Happiness.

Seematter, G., C. Binnert, and L. Tappy. “Stress and Metabolism.” Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2005. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Dickson, Suzanne, and Cristina Rabasa. “Impact of Stress on Metabolism and Energy Balance.” Impact of Stress on Metabolism and Energy Balance. N.p., June 2016. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.