Stress & how it affects our metabolism

Interview with Geraldine Georgeou. Republished with permission from

Have you ever noticed how some people lose weight and others put weight on when under stress?

Stress affects all of us in different ways.

Some of us will cope better than others with the stress of a separation and divorce but all of us will have to go through the process.

How you travel through this time – and the choices you make about your health and diet – will not only affect your health, but also your appearance.

All of which for a women – particular one who has been left – does nothing for her ego, self esteem and capacity to recover.

It is really important to consider your own wellbeing as well as that of your children.

Geraldine Georgeou looks at how stress affects our metabolism and therefore us. She explains why and what happens when we are under alot of stress and offers some ideas to help.

Geraldine is a consulting dietitian with a Bachelor of Science and Masters of Science along with over 20 years experience.

She has a special interest in Weight Management extending to Polycystic ovary disease, fertility,menopause,insulin resistance and diabetes and is also a spokesperson for the Coeliac Society.

Geraldine is often called upon by the media to report on nutrition and wellbeing. She is a regular presenter on Channel 7’s Today Tonight and Channel 9’s Today Show and has appeared on Good Medicine, Morning’s with Kerrie-Anne, Fresh TV, A Current Affair, and nightly news broadcasts across the commercial news networks as well as ABC and SBS.

Geraldine also participates in Educationals, Lectures and Workshops to GPs, fitness instructors and heathcare professionals.

 “Stress may be considered as any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes physical or mental tension and that may be a factor in disease causation. Emotional causes of stress and tension are numerous and varied.

The degree of stress in our lives is highly dependent upon individual factors such as our physical health, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the number of commitments and responsibilities we carry, the degree of others’ dependence upon and expectations of us, the amount of support we receive from others, and the number of changes or traumatic events that have recently occurred in our lives.

Persons with adequate social support networks report less stress and overall improved mental health in comparison to those without these social contacts.

Persons who are poorly nourished, who get inadequate sleep, or who are physically unwell also have reduced capabilities to handle pressures and stresses of everyday life and may report higher stress levels.”
Dr. Melissa C. Stoppler, Stress 101-

Stress can take its toll on all of us and a lot of the time we may not even be aware of it. Our experiences of it are as different as the circumstances we find ourselves in – along with how we deal with them.

When relationships break down, both parties are under pressure from many sources and – depending on all of the above factors – our stress levels can sometimes increase disproportionate to our coping capacity.

For women who are now single mothers the physical, emotional and mental demands can increase 2 or 3 fold. These demands often result in our not looking after ourselves as well as we should and deserve.

Not only do our bodies pay a price, but often it can be our appearance that ultimately reflects the havoc prolonged stress can have on us:
· Weight loss
· weight gain
· reduced muscle tone
· saggy or sallow skin
· premature wrinkles
· premature ageing
· Tiredness
· Lack of energy

Going through a divorce is never easy and takes time to
· get through the process
· then to recover and
· start a new live

Sounds simple, but those who have there  know how hard it is and that it can sometimes go on for years – particularly where children are involved.

To survive the whole process and come out of it with internal and external health intact, it is really important to address and be aware of how we are travelling nutritionally and medically.

Q. Geraldine, a women living through separation and divorce – or any stressful situation – how could stress affect her body and metabolism?

When a Dietitian is consulting with a patient they have to ask questions to get a feel for:

· medically, how fit is this person and
· at this time of stress, is this patient nutritionally at risk of other medical issues evolving

In order to ascertain this we need to understand what this person is eating and find out what a healthy eating plan is to them. Quite often when you are looking at surviving a trauma, all of a sudden, what you are used to may change as you progress through the journey. Simply, meal times may change and food choices may even be compromised.
All sorts of things may start to evolve, so you need to really make sure you have a good health team to help you through these times of trouble. And stress CAN evoke changes in how our bodies work.

You might be coming from a place where you have never had to worry about what you eat and all of a sudden problems are starting to evolve. You could even start to experience constipation and bowel troubles.

Irritable bowel could be a problem. It might not be just weight gain or weight loss but also discomfort, bloating, feeling tired and horrible.

In certain cases, anaemia could occur because you might not be having enough nutritious food intake and you may become malnourished in nutrients.

So it’s important to be certain about
· what is healthy eating for me
· what extra health nutritional needs or foods I am may need to focus on at present
· extra vitamins I may need to have on board

Stress could simply mean that you loose appetite or start to over eat leading to a medical issue. It might just lead to a living component of feeling low so you might find that you are not eating well. In which case you need to know – what is a meal that is good enough for when you’re not eating properly.

Supplement drinks could be helpful. Extra vitamins could be helpful to those people who loose their appetite.  For people who like to over eat, we need to say “OK lets look at what needs you are meeting”.

Cocooning yourself with chocolates is not going to really help. You will start to feel tired, sluggish and next thing you know you are not feeling all that well. Your health starts to snowball at the same time as you are trying to survive.

Times of stress are when people should consult their doctor and together make a plan that will help them go through journey. The Dietitian’s role would include the creation of a healthy eating plan which is tailored to the individual’s health and personal needs.

Working together with your GP – and or medical specialist which could be an endocrinologist – you will become aware of what could become an issue with your body under stress.

Q. What do you mean?

It’s actually quite multi-factutorial. Stress can affect people very differently and it is very individual. We need to look at the persons past as well as their family’s genetic makeup.

There are nutritional, medical and biochemical concerns which need to be considered.

It also depends on the persons
– genetic make up
– the environment around them – such as their home and work life
– their food choices and
– how they go about managing their meals.

1. We need to look at the individuals nutritional requirements:

We would want to find out:

· what are healthy foods to this person,
· are there reasons why they may have issues with weight loss or weight gain during times of stress eg; family pre-disposition to disease

Food choices – under stress – may be changing along with:

· Home environment
· what food they like and may desire now
· lifestyle and work ( take-away V’s home cooked)

2. On the medical side, when we talk about metabolism we need to be aware if people have genetic precursors such as

· mature age onset diabetics in their family history
· hypertension or
· cholesterol problems

If the answer is YES then their bodies – under stress – may trigger an excess insulin production.

If that is the case and they choose to eat more carbohydrates eg
– cakes, biscuits
– easy meal foods like, pasta or bread

all of a sudden they might find that – “now I have a problem with my weight”.

Once again, we then try to look at what needs are being met by these food choices:
· Such as emotional – it could be “I deserve it foods” or
· simply feeling tired and
· not sleeping well at night

Other people at times of stress may find that – they have an increased caloric requirement and may find they are losing weight.

– a person’s genetic make up
– the environment around them
– their food choices and
– how they go about managing their meals

All influence weight gain or loss.

3. Biochemistry means the way our body functions.

You could simply say metabolism for example, but metabolism really means what organs are working well and what aren’t.

Often I’ll find people through times of stress might start to have thyroid troubles.

If the thyroid starts over working – a medical condition such as hyperthyroidism may develop. This means that you may need more calories to maintain your weight. On the other hand, you might get a – sluggish thyroid and find you put weight on.

Your doctor may then give you a referral to see an endocrinologist or hormone specialist for further investigation and treatment.

Insulin Resistance is also another metabolic condition that could evolve where people find it very hard to loose weight. Your doctor may then give you a referral to see an endocrinologist or hormone specialist for further investigation and treatment together with lifestyle management

Q. Would many people have an insulin problem?

Insulin resistance is quite common and can afflict people at different times in their lifecycle such as at puberty, (post pregnancies – for women) and at (menopause – for women) or later on in life. The key element to insulin resistance is:
– a genetic predisposition
– a decrease in physical activity and
– poor food choice.

Q. What is insulin exactly?

Insulin is a hormone that we all make. It passes though your blood stream to transport glucose and supply fuel to our muscles and if you don’t use up the fuel, it can actually go to fat in some people.

Insulin levels can be measured via a blood test and it is best to do a 2 hour Glucose Tolerance Test with both glucose and insulin levels being measured.

Q. This is the sort of thing people would talk to their doctor about?

People should tell their Doctor if they are having problems with losing weight despite
– low fat, healthy eating with exercise

They could need to have they insulin levels reviewed.

Q. You talked about caloric requirements?

Calories are the basic energy that we get out of our food on a daily basis.
We actually eat in accordance with how much fuel or calories we need. When we are caloric deficit we don’t get enough food IN and our bodies often trigger us to actually eat some more food. So it is our body’s actual way of using hunger and appetite to keep everything in equilibrium.

Q. At very stressful times not only can eating habits change but also drinking habits. How does self medicating with alcohol affect us?

If you then develop a dependence on alcohol, other issues may again need to be addressed.

We know we can have a glass of wine to relax and wind down but by the same token if that then becomes a routine occurrence, we have a possibility of having problems, such as weight gain but also further load on the liver. Skin can also suffer from dehydration and could lead to premature ageing.

Q. How would that affect our metabolism?

Alcohol is a very caloric or high energy food. A glass of wine could give you 250 calories which could be equal to a simple sandwich.

All of a sudden you might be eating extra food in the form of drink and weight gain may occur from this.

Also drinking too much alcohol depletes your B group vitamins and then you’ll be combating another issue. You will need to increase your vitamin intake to combat the habit that may be starting to evolve.

At the end of the day, when I am going through and providing nutritional support to a patient, I like to get them to understand what a particular food is doing for them and what need they are trying to meet.

For example, we eat for flavour and taste when we choose cakes or salty foods.

Food preferences have a lot to do with what we have grown up with – for some people there is nothing like chicken soup when we feel unwell.

So understanding these and why we choose certain foods can help us to make a plan of
· foods which will add to my health
· what my “now and again foods” can be

The last thing anyone needs to have happen when they are going through a survival process is to actually start to make themselves unwell.

Q. We all know that exercise is an important part of it along with what we eat. How does exercise affect our metabolism?

Exercise is a fantastic thing for your health because you get
· feel-good endorphins being released into your body
· time out and maybe an escape from your situation

Exercise helps you to metabolise your food, expend calories and irons everything out.

I would encourage everyone to have a routine form of exercise – not to cause an injury or wear you out – but to develop a pattern of exercise that adds to your energy, health and vitality.

When we exercise our heart rate is increased and this helps burn more calories. The prolonged effect comes when we get fitter and – if all else is OK – may start loosing weight.

We know that aiming to exercise for a half to an hour, every day will actually help.

For a lot of women at this time, exercise is a great way of releasing built up tension and anger.

Q. Any other advice Geraldine?

The only thing I would say to people is that you need to PREPARE. Now I know this isn’t always something people can do in the case of separation and divorce.

But it doesn’t have to be all that hard.

To help your self, is to understand your

· personal physiological circumstances
· what healthy food requirements you have and
· how can I have my self feeling well and fit through this time?

If you are able to eat and look after yourself, you will have the energy and motivation to hopefully sleep better and be able to get through this difficult time.