By Sarah Berry
The changes Laura Piccardi was experiencing in her body didn’t make any sense.
It was 2014 and the personal trainer had just opened her own gym in Sydney’s Maroubra.
Her job was to look fit and healthy and help others to do the same. Instead she felt erratic, low on energy and bloated. Her menstrual cycle stopped and she was putting on weight.
“As a personal trainer and gym owner I was concerned that people wouldn’t take me seriously or they’d question my ability if I didn’t look fit and trim,” the 36-year-old explains. “So everything I did was focused on trying to keep my weight down.”
Confused that whatever she was doing “wasn’t working”, she pushed harder.
While people under acute stress often lose weight, when we feel chronically stressed we tend to store fat.
“I went through periods where I tried going without carbs or without fat and tried this exercise regime or that,” Piccardi says. “At one point I was training a couple of times a day. I thought I could fix the health symptoms I’d started to experience through diet and exercise – I thought diet and exercise could fix everything.”
She was too busy to stop and consider the impact of the “ridiculous” hours she was working, the chronic lack of sleep and the constant stress.
The relationship between stress and weight, our food intake and exercise is tangled.
While people under acute stress often lose weight, when we feel chronically stressed we tend to store fat and, subsequently put ourselves at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and high blood pressure.
Accredited practising dietitian, Melanie McGrice explains that stress impacts our weight in “three key ways”.
“Firstly, when people feel stressed, they often feel overwhelmed, and it becomes difficult to make good food choices,” McGrice says. “Nutritious meals become a low priority.”
Secondly, stress often results in comfort eating because foods high in sugar and fat as well as alcohol, it is hypothesised, relieve negative emotions and therefore temporarily reduce the stress response.
“Unfortunately, they often exacerbate our stress levels in the longer term because, if we’re turning to them for stress, we often feel even worse later,” McGrice explains.
Thirdly, when we feeled stressed, our cortisol levels, aka our “fight or flight” hormones, spike.
This causes our body to store central (easy to use) fat and glycogen in the liver where it can supply the brain with fast energy, for those times we need to escape perceived threat quickly.
“However, as most of our stress is emotional instead of physical these days, we don’t utilise these carbohydrate stores, and our body redeposits it as fat around our waistline,” McGrice explains, adding: “One of the best strategies for stress is physical activity because it helps to utilise the carbohydrate stores and optimise our cortisol levels.”
While exercise is important – for health and stress-relief – paradoxically, in times of chronic stress, instense exercise can be counterproductive because it further stimulates the stress response, as does dieting.
Instead, when our bodies and stress levels are out of balance, we can benefit more from activating the “rest and repair” response in our body by reducing caffeine and sugar, ramping up our intake of green vegetables, wholegrains, beans and healthy fats as well as through breath-focused practices like yoga, t’ai chi, pilates, meditation and qi gong.
The “rest and repair” response slows our heart rate, sends blood to our digestive tract, allows us to burn fat (which is slower to release than our other energy source, glucose) helps us to sleep, repairs our body’s cells and restores libido; all of the things that are well down the body’s priority list when it is in “survival” mode.
As her health continued to deteriorate, Piccardi closed down her gym and realised she needed to address her stress.
“It took me a bloody long time because I had to figure it all out myself,” says Piccardi. “I’d heard of meditation and mindfulness but that wasn’t really getting through to me — it all seemed a bit airy fairy and I didn’t understand why they were important.”
She began reading books about stress and taking courses to help her “look at the world in a different way”, she swapped constant intense exercise for walking and yoga, she focused on slowing down, having more fun, on prioritising sleep and she stopped restricting herself.
In her book, Women’s Wellness Wisdom nutritional biochemist Dr Libby Weaver writes: “People believe that in order to become healthy they must lose some weight. I believe the opposite is true: in order to lose weight, we must become healthy.”
Piccardi found this to be true.
Over three years, as she shifted the focus from her weight to her health and to addressing her stress levels, her weight balanced out by itself, her menstrual cycle returned and her mood and energy levels lifted.
“Now my focus is 100 per cent on my health, and largely on my mental health and mindset”, says Piccardi, who now works as a stress management and performance coach. “Because I now understand and appreciate that this is what drives everything and determines the quality of my life.”
Sarah Berry is a lifestyle and health writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.