How Stress Makes us Fat. The Cure Involves Wine and Getting Plenty of D.

If you are having difficulty seeing the results from a new diet, take this five question quiz.

1. Do you avoid processed foods? Here’s why you should.

2. Have you stopped eating fast carbs (sugar, wheat, and fruit juice etc.)? Here’s why that’s important.

3. Are you physically active? If, not read Dr. Jason Valadao’s tips for geting started.

4. Do you engage in some form of time restricted eating, intermittent fasting, or longer fasting? This is why we all probably should.

5. Have you signed up for email alerts for DrJimmyWestbrook.com?

If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, then that may be the issue, but if you answered “yes” to all and are still having trouble achieving your ideal weight, then it’s possible that chronic stress is holding you back. While this occurs in men, I see this much more commonly in my female patient population for reasons I do not fully understand.

Chronic stress activates our “fight or flight mode”, but for most of us, it never gets turned off. This is bad. Cortisol is our body’s chemical response to stress. Cortisol raises our blood sugar levels, and causes a host of other problems (see diagram below). Cortisol also causes us to hold onto our body fat when dieting or fasting, and our body’s only recourse is to slow our metabolism (fatigue) and burn protein (muscle) as fuel, both of which are bad. Chronic stress often leads to poor sleep, which leads to even higher levels of cortisol. I wrote about this here. To make matters worse, stress and lack of sleep both encourage stress eating. This makes stress a triple or even quadruple whammy (I lost track of whammies) in regards to our weight.


So why do we have chronic stress?

Our stress response evolved to help us survive when we were running from sabretooth tigers. We don’t have many sabretooth tiger encounters today, so why are we so stressed? My theory is that during ancient times the tiger encounters served to calibrate people’s internal stress meter. Stress levels were high when tigers were near, and stress levels were much lower when they weren’t. Also, before lightbulbs, we had not choice but to relax, socialize, and rest when it got dark outside. Today many of us have a 24-7 bombardment of stressors from our jobs, our kids, cable news networks, and baseless criminal investigations. None of our stressors today are as dangerous as sabretooth tigers, but today’s stressors are more constant, more numerous, and therefore overwhelming. This is the problem. Our stress response is locked in the “On” position. Add on the facts that most of us aren’t getting enough sleep, and we have access to an unlimited supply of processed foods, and it’s not surprising that America is over-stressed and overweight.

So how do we reduce chronic stress?
As tempting as it sounds to quit our jobs, enroll our kids in boarding school, and move to a naked hot yoga commune, in a non-extradition country, we really just need to adjust our response to stress. A Man’s Search For Meaning, by Victor Frankl proposes that we choose our responses to stressors, but most of us react instinctively, effectively giving up the power to choose. He discovered this truth while being a prisoner at Auschwitz. While his guards had the power to hurt him, only he had the ultimate power to choose his own response to their actions. This is literally the most empowering concept I’ve learned in 25 years of self-improvement reading. That’s a little deep for this space, and I promise a meme or penis joke is forthcoming, but first here is a model of his theory I made, no big deal.

That space between stimulus and response is our opportunity to choose to not stress and to let it go, like Elsa from Frozen. Just fucking let it go. The choice is ours. I just want us to realize that it is a choice. When I hear someone say, “He made me so mad…” I want to say is, “Karen, what really happened was he did something, and you chose to get mad, and then you asked to speak to the manager.” We all choose. If Victor Frankl can choose not to hate his guards, then I can choose not to get mad at the guy who cuts me off in traffic, and therefore I choose not to stress in the first place. Also, we need to de-stress. Here’s a few things I recommend.

  1. Get a lot of D. The catch is that the D has to be natural D, the kind of vitamin D you get from sunlight and a healthy diet and not from a pill. People with naturally normal vitamin D levels are less stressed and maintain better body weight, but studies show that this does not apply to people who are taking oral D supplements. Lab mice when deprived of sunlight will get elevated cortisol levels, and even show drug addiction withdrawal symptoms, which all stems from a lack of sufficient D.
  2. Sauna. Not everyone enjoys 20 minutes in the sauna as much as I do. Perhaps the sweating, extreme heat, spicy odors, and naked men aren’t your thing. Try it anyway. If you do an honest self-assessment 30 minutes after, you will feel more relaxed, less stressed, and signifiantly happier. The body releases natural endorphins during and after a sauna, similar to exercise and sex. Also, don’t exercise or have sex in a sauna. I will write an article about sauna soon, but it’s my go-to stress reliever that just happens to make us live longer too. I distract myself during my sauna with crossword puzzles to get through the whole session. I bring water with electrolytes and a towel to cover my private areas, and you should too, especially if you go to my gym. Please and thank you.
  3. Exercise. You already know this. I won’t go into details, but exercise helps stress. Thanks, Captain Obvious.
  4. Mindfulness AKA meditation. This really works but unfortunately, it often takes 2 or 3 consecutive days to feel the results, but the results are ridiculously good. I feel so good after a few days that I often forget to do it and then rebound. I (and probably you) just need to make it a regular daily habit like flossing, manscaping, or messing with your spouse’s toothbrush. Initially, I recommend committing to two weeks of a daily practice. If you don’t feel 50% better at the end then maybe it’s not for you, but trust me, it’s for you. I’ve used and enjoy the Calm, Headspace, and Brain FM apps for my guided mindfulness. My favorite is the Calm 10 minute loving kindness practice.
  5. Bath with Epsom’s Salts or transdermal magnesium. Baths can relax us but adding Epsom’s salt is a whole different level of relaxing. Why? The salts contain magnesium. Magnesium is a natural relaxant and is best absorbed through the skin. This allows it to go straight to our nervous system and skips some of the GI side effects. This is also great for sleep. If you don’t want to bathe, just apply transdermal magnesium in the evening.
  6. Sleep. This is huge. Check out my article if you haven’t already.
  7. Yoga. If mindfulness and exercise had a child, it would be called “Yoga.” And if sauna, exercise, and mindfulness had a threesome their baby would be “hot yoga.” PS I don’t do yoga in front of people. I do room temperature yoga, at home, at least once per week to prevent back pain and improve my core strength, but also as a substitute for mindfulness. Despite not being flexible at all and having very poor balance, I’m super good at yoga, because yoga isn’t a competition. It’s like soccer for six year olds, if you just get out there and try, you get orange slices and a trophy. In yoga, we’re all winners. I’m going to buy a yoga trophy for myself and display it proudly on my mantle. I use the BeachBody.com app for my yoga, but there are a lot of good apps and YouTube channels out there for home yoga. Message me with your favorite, and I’ll update this post.
  8. Lavender or Sage oil. I add lavender or sage oil (depending on my mood) to activities #2,4,5,6,7, and 10 as a way to bombard my senses with anti-stress messages and to disengage from the flight or fight mode.
  9. Wine*. I’m not suggesting getting drunk in order to de-stress and forget about our problems. For legal reasons, I ask that you re-read the previous sentence. Often when we are dieting, we stop our evening glass or two of wine because it’s an extra 80 calories per glass. If that’s your way of unwinding after a long day, then I think you should keep doing it*, especially if stress is an issue for you. Also, red wine has a lot of benefits, and a glass can overall help your metabolism.
  10. The 5 Minute Journal.** I do this every day and it has significantly decreased the amount of time I spend crying in the shower. It’s amazing. I previously used the hard copy version but have switched to the app because I was misplacing the book, and the app allows me to upload pictures. Here’s a screenshot from one day’s entry. There’s also a great daily quote and a part where you recap what could have been better.
I was parked when I took this picture.

The journal is also great to do with your kids as well. The process teaches gratitude and helps ground us and reminds us that we aren’t being chased by tigers and also sets intentions for the day. The recap at night helps me relax before bed. The app is only 5 bucks. Get one for yourself and someone you care about. You’ll be glad you did.

This was supposed to be a short article, but I ramble. If you are on the path to wellness and feel that you are stalling out, consider addressing chronic stress. We don’t need to run from our stressors but instead learn to address how we respond to them and use positive tools to let go of stress once it has affected us. Also, we need lots of D. I know this is a little touchy feely, but stress is a serious medical problem that doesn’t just cause weight issues, but also cancer, chronic inflammation, depression, anxiety, and Netflix bingewatching. If you aren’t affected, you know someone who is. Forward this article to them and encourage them to sign up for my email alerts.

*Don’t start drinking if you are a non-drinker, as this is a slippery slope, moderation can be difficult, and excess alcohol is bad. This should be self-explanatory.
**This was a Tim Ferris recommendation.

6 thoughts on “How Stress Makes us Fat. The Cure Involves Wine and Getting Plenty of D.

    • DrJimmyWestbrook

      Rowena, thanks for the kind words. We miss you here. I am really just trying to create a playbook for our patients to get better, so we as family physicians don’t have to spend too much time talking about this stuff. There isn’t enough time in a visit to talk about all of this. Thanks again.

    • DrJimmyWestbrook

      Andrea, thanks for the support! I am really having fun writing this stuff. Much appreciated.

  1. Sochie Schmitz

    Great article! Love how you incorporate some humor with info we need to read to be our best selves-

    • DrJimmyWestbrook

      Thanks for the kind words. I try to keep the humor to a minimum but it just comes out. I can’t help it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.