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Stress – A Hidden Factor in Weight Gain & Disease

  • This article is part 2 in a series on Metabolism by Sara Vance, Golden Door Nutritionist & Author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan

Stress. We can’t see it, or touch it…but we can feel it’s effects, and stress plays a major role in weight imbalances and a myriad of other health issues.

Lets look at how stress affects us physically.

Our body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two sides – the parasympathic nervous system (PNS), which is sometimes referred to as our “rest & digest” side, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is considered the “fight or flight” side.

When our body perceives a threat – our SNS kicks into gear – our blood sugar spikes, our stress hormones get released, heart rate increases, the blood vessels constrict – increasing blood pressure and volume. Back when we were hunter gathers, all of that enabled us to have the energy and strength to run from a predator. During a stress response, digestion, fertility, immune system, detox, sleep, and repair take a back seat when the SNS is engaged, because survival is always the priority. When the threat is gone, our ANS can return to a state of homeostasis, or balance.

The issue today is that many of us are functioning in a stressed out state all of the time. We aren’t running from sabre tooth tigers, we are dealing with the daily stressors of life, that don’t go away: deadlines, traffic jams, family and work dynamics, health issues, being available 24-7 by text, computer and phone. Even just turning on the TV or scrolling our feeds can cause our stress levels to rise. And I don’t think we realize that poor diets, eating on the run, and even over-exercising can be a source of stress as well.

Stress hormones aren’t inherently “bad” – our “stress hormone” cortisol has a natural rhythm in our bodies– it should naturally be a little higher in the morning, to give us the “get up and go” to hop out of bed and get our day started. It should be lower at night to allow us to settle down to good nights’ sleep.

A blood sugar spike is useful if we need a burst of energy to run from a sabre tooth tiger. But if our blood sugar is spiking all day long from stress while we are sitting at our desk in front of our computer, that can create health issues.

When we have chronic stress for a long time, our healthy cortisol rhythms can get disrupted. They can be low in the morning (need 5 cups of coffee to jump our engines), and then after stimulating with stress, caffeine and sugar all day – they can be high at bedtime (tired but wired feeling).   Overtime, this can lead to a myriad of health issues – blood sugar dysregulation, stubborn weight gain, elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, and increased risk for diseases including stroke, heart attack, and cancers.

We all know stress is here to stay. The key making sure we have tactics to manage stress, so we can get our bodies out of fight or flight and into rest and digest mode.

Wondering if you are dealing with the side effects of too much stress? Here are some signs:

  • Stubborn weight gain (high cortisol causes weight gain in midsection)
  • Insomnia (“tired but wired” feeling)
  • Digestion trouble
  • Blood pressure dysregulation (some may have high, some may have low)
  • Blood sugar issues
  • Elevated cholesterol (it’s the “mother of all hormones” and if we are making lots of stress hormones – the body will make more!
  • Hormone imbalances (Stress hormones take priority so the body will steal from the sex hormones to make cortisol– called the “pregnenolone steal”)
  • Sick a lot
  • Stress fractures or osteoporosis
  • Feeling depleted and overwhelmed
  • Brain fog, lost your “edge”
  • Resent others who enjoy “downtime”
  • Undereye bags, or age spots
  • Need wine to chill out

If you can relate to the above symptoms, don’t stress out! The good news is that awareness is the first step in change! There are many things we can do to take back control of our stress response, and feel more balanced.

3 Golden Rules for Lowering Stress:

1. Prioritize You & Your Health.

Do you regularly find yourself saying to yourself…”I just have to get through this (project, deadline, deal, or event), and then I’ll…”

  • get healthy
  • sleep more than 4 hours a night again
  • start to take care of myself
  • find time to rest and relax
  • take that vacation I have been putting off for 2 years
  • be able to slow down
  • clean up my diet
  • stop eating all this sugar all day long
  • start to exercise again

I find some of the most hard-working, kind, giving, and reliable people on this planet are also the most depleted. Because they are the go-to people, when someone needs a job done. But so many health issues (including serious ones) can often be traced back to putting oneself and their health at the bottom of their priority list for too long.

My motto is ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ If we continue to pour from our cup without refilling it, we will have nothing left to give at some point. When you are prioritizing yourself, you feel happier & healthier. You are a better employee, parent, partner, etc. You know how the flight attendant tells you to put your airmask on first? Yup, same rule applies.

One of the most important steps for prioritizing our health is to know the power of “No.” There are only so many hours in a day. If other people are using all of your time up for their goals, there is nothing left for you. So learning how to say “no” is critical. If it is a new work project that is being piled on top of 5 others, it might not be “no”, but it could be “which of these current projects can be put on the backburner to prioritize this one?”

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today….including self-care.

2. Take Time for Soul Food

In all of my private sessions at the Golden Door, I ask “what is your soul food?”

Soul food is not something you eat, it is something that fills your cup, feeds your soul. It is something you enjoy, that lets you escape your day to day stress. Soul food is not something you feel obligated to do, but that you look forward to, and helps you relax. Soul food is individual – arts and crafts might be a happy escape for you, but could feel like torture to someone else. Yoga, cooking, or gardening could be relaxing to someone, but exhausting to another.

Ask yourself “when was the last time I did something just for the fun of it?” If was recently and regularly – pat yourself on the back. If it has been so long that you have no idea what your soul food is – don’t stress out!! I can’t tell you how many people have forgotten what is their soul food.

If it’s been a long time, take the “soul food challenge.” Just get out a piece of paper, come up with a list of things you enjoy and schedule time in your calendar for it. Make it a positive experience to explore new hobbies, not a chore. Getting in the habit of taking time out for things you enjoy is good practice!

When we engage in something that brings us joy, it naturally lowers our stress levels, improves our mood, and is like giving ourselves a little “gift” of relaxation.

3. Bring the ‘Golden Door Glow’ Home.

The Golden Door is very a special place – where you can immerse yourself in self-care practices like meditation, Reiki, nature experiences, healthy movement, nourishing meals, joyful experiences with practitioners and other guests, soul-food, soul-searching, and deep sleep. Ideally, your only care in the world at The Golden Door, should be YOU. I always feel like Golden Door guests have a certain “glow” because of all of this wonderful self-care, and what I consider self-love. My goal is always to encourage guests bring a little bit of the Golden Door glow home.

So think about it, what self-care practices do your enjoy at the Golden Door, could you enjoy at home? I had a private client tell me that they worked with a meditation teacher for the first time ever at The Golden Door, and she was excited to be able to incorporate meditation in her daily life back at home. Some guests have asked for recipes from Chef Greg, so they can bring some of the Golden Door nourishment home. Maybe you love walking or hiking, yoga, thai chi, or pilates at The Golden Door – find a way to keep that up at home.

I see self-care is an expression of self-love. I believe all health comes from a place of self-love. When we make loving choices for ourselves – from our meals to our activities, we are showing ourselves love.

The older I get, the more I realize that self care is not a “nice to have,” it’s a “need to have.” Have you ever heard the expression, “genes load the gun, but something has to pull the trigger?” Stress is sometimes called “the switch that turns on disease.”

So don’t feel guilty if you take time out for something “frivolous.” If you enjoy it – its worth it. Self-care is not selfish, it is smart; and could potentially prevent a health crisis down the road.

And just remember – you don’t have to overhaul your whole life overnight. Start small. Believe it or not, a little self-care goes a long way. Give it a try!

Learn more in Chapter Seven of The Perfect Metabolism Plan, “Stop the Madness – Lower Stress, the Switch that Slows the Metabolism and Turns on Disease” – it has tips for managing stress and improving sleep.

Another consideration for our stress hormones is exercise. On the one hand, exercise can lower our stress hormones. But overdoing it – especially when we are already under stress – can also raise our stress hormones. Think about it this way – when we lift weights, we break down muscle, when we rest – they build back up stronger. So rest is where the gains happen! So we need to rest to reap the rewards of our work (in the gym and in life). Chapter 10 of The Perfect Metabolism Plan explains how to Exercise Smarter to boost the metabolism

Sara Vance

A Nutritionist & the Author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan, Sara Vance has been in the fitness and health industry for over 25 years.

Sara believes that healing the metabolism is the real secret to reaching our ideal weight and achieving vibrant health.

Sara empowers people how to use nutrition and natural lifestyle changes to live their very best life. Sara shares her knowledge for nutritional approaches to health in blogs, recipes, videos, and as a speaker – she has been a regular guest on San Diego morning shows for over 7 years. Find her articles, videos, and more information at:

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