In the last blog I promised a new approach to losing weight – a new approach that would not involve another diet with reduced caloric intake, nor another pill with its magic properties. I also promised that I would address both your eating style and your life. For this blog, I want to address your life, not your eating. I have consulted with too many patients, and I have reviewed too many charts, to escape a singular finding: When people improve (or redesign) their lives, they lose weight – and permanently. For many people, weight gain is not a reflection of their eating; weight gain is a reflection of the quality of their life. Specifically, it is a reflection of the level of stress within their life.
Let me explain. The stress hormone cortisol increases whenever a person feels increased stress in his or her life, either from conflict with work, finances, family, or relationships. It also occurs whenever a person experiences decreased sleep, usually a by-product of the same issues with increased stress from work, finances, family or relationships. With a higher level of the stress hormone cortisol, you can probably guess what happens. Just think back to the prior blog. A higher level of the stress hormone cortisol disrupts the other hormones and other physiologic systems that regulate your body. A higher stress hormone interferes with sugar regulation, fat storage, appetite satiety, and cravings. You can easily predict how stress leads to higher weight.
Hopefully, you can appreciate the message. One of the starting points for losing weight is not reducing your calorie intake through some diet or some pill; it is reducing your cortisol level through a reduction in your overall stress. Truthfully, it is that simple. Yet, it is not that simple. It requires people to address the quality of their life and make some tough choices: How can it be changed? How can it be improved? How can the level of stress be reduced? For many people, that means reducing components of work, especially the long hours of work. For other people, it means changing the dynamics at home with better, less conflicted relationships. For some people, it means facing hidden issues – new and old. I have seen a number of patients face prior traumas (family violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse), and then lose weight after successfully addressing those traumas.
For you, I would start with work and home. Is your work what you really want to do with your life? If the answer is no, then you are probably not satisfied with your career; and if you are frustrated and stressed at the office, you are probably going to engage in emotional eating. Food can be a short-term relief for each one of us. However, the key word is short-term. Long term, food can be our undoing. It does not resolve the issues; it just reflects the issues – and gives us the new problem of weight gain. If work is not your central stressor, then I would focus on your relationships at home. I have mentioned the statistics in previous blogs. Spouses tend to spend 5-20 minutes with each other on a 1:1 daily basis; and parents tend to spend less time with their children on a 1:1 daily basis. This lack of emotional contact creates stress, not relief. The time together, for any couple, needs to be expanded for the relationship to blossom (and the stress to shrink).
The same questions need to be directed to your sleep. What time do you get to bed each night? How many hours of sleep do you typically obtain? The Chinese believe that one hour of sleep before midnight is equal to two hours of sleep after midnight. Many sleep researchers recommend going to bed around 10:30 pm because that allows for 90 minutes of the first sleep cycle – with good physiologic repair – before midnight. That physiologic repair is crucial for a good immune system and good physical health, but it also crucial for reducing your cortisol. A series of good nights for sleeping can start to lower your weight. Chronic insomnia or interrupted sleep can do just the opposite; it can increase your cortisol and your weight. So, the solution for weight loss is much more than your caloric intake or your burning of fat cells. The real solution may be related to better health and improved sleep — a better life.
There is one other component for weight loss that needs to be addressed. When thinking about weight loss, instead of searching for that next diet book or next pill, how about considering meditation and visualization? Now, before you discount its value, let me provide some research findings. Meditation, when combined with positive, self-affirming visualization (imagining yourself thinner), creates brain waves, which inhibit that part of your brain that produces stress hormones. More importantly, the impact of those brain waves lasts much longer than the brief 5-10 minutes of meditation and visualization. Just think about the possibilities. If you can reset (and lower) your stress hormones through meditation, fewer calories will be directed into fat on a regular, ongoing basis. With meditation and visualization, you can gradually progress to a lower weight without any dietary tricks to your body. That means those tricks will not be undone (as soon as you stop the diet or pill).
If there is one indisputable fact about our human body, it is that everything is connected. No part of your body operates in a vacuum. If you can change your level of stress, you will change your weight. If you can change your amount of sleep, you will change your weight. If you can change your brain waves, you will change your weight. All of these factors, independent of your eating, greatly impact your weight. If you need confirmation, look around the world. There are countries, like China, whose citizens eat higher levels of calories, but they are significantly thinner. Why? Because they have better health habits. They have more moments of relaxation. They have better sleep. Their culture supports more meditation and visualization. Yes, your weight is more a reflection of your life than a reflection of your eating. If you are not willing to face that reality, your weight will never reach and maintain its appropriate range.
So, how about changing the stressors in your life? Then watch how that impacts your weight – without any change in your eating style. It just requires that you think long-term, not short-term. Ask yourself, before you start some new diet or start taking some new pill, what is going to happen when you stop the diet or stop the pill? Don’t foot yourself. Again, through these diets, 98% of pounds are always regained. When you change your life through the above steps, the weight loss will become permanent, not temporary. Don’t you want to look good for more than just a couple of weeks or (at most) a couple of months? And, more importantly, don’t you want the quality of your life to feel equally good? There is a path. Healthy living and healthy eating.