Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Top Sante, Jan 2019)

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Knocking stress on the head and feeling more relaxed can go a long way to keeping you at your ideal weight – here’s why.

Following on from a busy season of festive indulgence, many of us seek a healthier balance in January, perhaps aiming to lose those extra pounds. And one less obvious way to go about that is to do what you can to reduce your stress levels. This is because stress can actually make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. ‘Your body still responds physiologically to all stress in the same way as it would to a huge predator,’ says Uxshely Chotai, founder of the Food Psychology Clinic (thefoodpsychologyclinic.co.uk). ‘Your blood sugar levels increase, your heart beats faster and your body gets ready to run away.’

This would be helpful if you needed to scarper from a sabre-toothed tiger but it’s less useful when you’re at a desk fretting about an overdue report. When you experience stress, your body produces the hormone cortisol. This stimulates the release of glucose, to give your muscles an immediate supply of energy, and suppresses the glucose-regulating hormone insulin. If it’s not used, all this excess glucose coursing around your bloodstream can end up stored as fat. Chronic stress interferes with your body’s sugar controls. ‘Even if you are eating healthily, raised cortisol from excess stress can increase insulin resistance, adding to the risk of diseases such as diabetes,’ says Dr Sally Norton (vavistalife.com), an NHS consultant and weight-loss specialist.

ROUND THE MIDDLE

What’s more, cortisol has even been shown to have an impact on where we put on weight. It tends to encourage the storage of ‘visceral fat’ in the abdominal area, wrapped around major organs such as the liver and kidneys. This fat is particularly bad for us, with links to increased risks of cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Many of us also ‘stress eat’ in times of anxiety, reaching for sugary foods as a coping mechanism. While there’s no harm in an occasional treat, it’s not a good plan in the long run. Read on for some ideas that will help.

SNIFF A LOVED ONE!

Next time you’re borrowing your other half’s snuggly jumper, tell yourself it’s all part of a stress-busting weight-loss plan. Smelling a romantic partner’s scent is proven to help lower stress levels, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. If you don’t have a partner (or just don’t fancy sniffing their dirty laundry!) the fragrances of lavender, jasmine and green apple are all also said to help alleviate stress – and might be slightly more pleasant! Time to get out that scented candle you received in your stocking at Christmas…

SCHEDULE YOUR STRESS

It might sound counterintuitive, but scheduling a specific ‘worry session’ into your day could reduce your overall stress levels, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Using a diary planner to organise and structure your days should help you to feel less rushed and flustered, but if you still feel panic rising, allot your worries a specific half-hour window. This should help you feel as if you’re controlling your stress, instead of it controlling you.

PAT A PUPPY

A dog is for life, not just for Christmas, but if you did happen to get a new pooch over the festive period, it’s great news for your stress levels! Playing with a dog not only gets you moving around outside, rain or shine, but petting one has also been shown to reduce levels of cortisol by a study at the University of Missouri-Columbia. If you don’t have a dog, Borrow My Doggy (borrowmydoggy.com) can connect you with local dog owners who need help with walks and dog-sitting.

TUNE IN TO NATURE

Getting out into the fresh air, surrounded by nature, is a brilliant mood booster and stress reliever. But even just watching wildlife videos will help you harness similar mental health benefits, according to a study by the University of California. There are wildlife webcams all over the world, that you can access online. Why not pay a visit to The Wildlife Trust’s website (wildlifetrusts.org/ webcams) where you can see live footage of peregrines nesting in Derby Cathedral, Scottish red squirrels and much more