WHY IS WEIGHT LOSS SO DIFFICULT?
Often, those who find themselves struggling with their weight are not aware that there are issues other than food to be dealing with. These are numerous, and include stress, environmental toxins, food intolerance and faulty brain signalling. Not only are these issues invisible, but they often happen in combination with each other. It isn’t simply food that makes us fat. This page proposes alternative courses of action to combat weight gain. They may be of particular use to the yo-yo dieter who has tried every diet under the sun, tried exercising, tried not exercising, but for whom nothing seems to work.
Stress can make you fat.
The following explores four different ways it does this. Let’s start with Jonny Bowden giving a brief introduction plus some typical examples of modern day stresses.
Now, our stress responses evolved to deal with this sort of scenario: some pre-historic homosapiens are strolling around the savanna looking for a berry bush and along comes a woolly mammoth looking to cause trouble. They grab some sticks and have an almighty battle with it to scare it away. After, they totter back to their cave with thumping hearts. There, they relax – and come over absolutely starving. Their bodies, having just expended much energy in keeping them alive, is now in repair mode and urgently needs the nutrients for its rebuilding projects.
These days we live under very different and fairly constant stress and when we do relax, this triggers us to entering that rebuild and repair mode. For this, stress stimulates the appetite, so we get dreadfully hungry – and now there is always plenty of food to eat - 24hour supermarkets have seen to that. Furthermore, the appetite is raised for comfort food. Chocolate Hob Nobbs come to mind.1
This constant stress also causes us to gain weight in other ways.
If someone creeps up behind you and says, “BOO!” – that’s adrenalin. If you are stuck in a heavy traffic jam for a few hours – that is cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is released when the stress lasts for more than a minute or two. In order to be able to keep us going full tilt, it breaks down muscles to provide energy and other systems in the body not essential for survival when enduring stressful events – restorative, regenerative, procreational – are put on hold.
And so, as Dr Bowden says in the above film clip, long exposure to cortisol leads to an increasing toll on the body. When we are stressed, the body cannot do repair jobs about the body as well as dealing with the stressor. Apart from anything else, digestion gets less and less effective2. This means that nutritional levels decline, leading to less energy and increasing abdominal bloating caused by food sensitivities. Less energy means we do less physical activity so need less calories to survive. This causes a vicious cycle, since exercise is very good at lowering stress levels. In other words, as we slowly deteriorate, we also stop being able to relieve the stress.
To survive constant stress the body is cued to burn up muscle mass and increase the stores of body fat. Burning muscles to give energy also lowers the amount of calories needed to stay alive, by lowering the metabolic rate. This slower metabolism makes us fat since the amount of food we needed to eat to maintain weight 6 months ago is now slightly too much food for our needs, with the excess being stored away as fat.
Since body fat is most easily accessed in times of stress3 from the belly store, this is why the body is cued to store the fat just there. So a fat belly has taken a time to build up – and takes a while to whittle away. To work on this fat store should be seen as a great gift. Because long term stress is very destructive to the body’s health, in learning how to deal with stress and finding ways of de -stressing that work for you – such as yoga, partying, meditation or walks in the countryside will not only help you lose weight but will also get you healthier and happier.
As was briefly mentioned above, stress reduces the effectiveness of the digestion and we are about to explore in more detail the issues surrounding food sensitivities and how they make us overeat.
Food sensitivities are a huge issue. It is the issue that stalls weight loss almost more than anything else. Being sensitive to a food means that when you eat this food for a variety of reasons the protein of the food enters the bloodstream where it is attacked as an alien invader4. Inflammation results and to calm this, the body produces opioids which are just as addictive as opium itself. So the foods that are causing the problems call, ‘EAT ME, EAT ME!’ loud and clear. Not eating these foods requires understanding, which will help the necessary will power.
How we get ourselves into this pickle is due to several reasons:
- ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ It is drilled into us to eat up our grains. Grains are wheat, rye and barley. For reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere, their actual nutritional content is a poor candle in comparison with animal or fish protein, plenty of over ground vegetables along with a good dose of healthy fat. And if the grains have been processed in any way, their nutritional content is potentially disastrous.
- Only a couple of generations ago we all ate seasonally. Strawberries in November were unheard of. Now we can eat all we want whatever time of year it is – but instead of increasing the variety of what we eat, it reduces it since we gorge on the foods we love the most.
- Stress reduces digestive function and healing and opens the tight junctions in the gut wall.
- Foods like wheat also open up the tight junctions in the gut wall, enabling partially digested food into the blood stream where they are seen as alien invaders, setting up an immune response and inflammation.
- Eating too much of the same foods every day – with those open junctions, molecules from the same foods keep getting into the blood stream and so sensitivities develop.
- Nutritional status is dropping due to:
- The soil being leached of nutrients;
- Modern farming practices of both animals and fish leading to the livestock not eating a natural diet;
- An increasing amount of processed food being eaten. The more a food has been fiddled about with, the less the nutritional value;
All the above lead to lack of nutrients like zinc and omega 3 which cause fussy eating and a lack of variety in the diet.
- Bloating and wind.
- Tired all the time.
- Cravings for the foods causing the problems – due to the opioid response of the body to quell the resulting inflammation.
- Chronic illness: skin problems, under-active thyroid, arthritis (both types), diabetes (both types), cancer. In other words, all the usual suspects.
So we end up addicted to a restricted diet with an over emphasis on wheat and dairy followed closely by eggs. Poor digestive function means we can only handle easily digested protein, so chicken and farmed salmon are eaten in excess. And this results in many food sensitivities, weight gain and being out of control of our food choices.
To be serious about losing weight, it is necessary to look closely at the diet and eliminate all foodstuffs that have been eaten every day for 16 weeks. Start with wheat and dairy.
So now we have two balls juggling to explain why fat is so persistent: stress and food sensitivities. A major cause of stress is not getting enough sleep – very undervalued today. And we shall now find out why having a good snooze can help trim the thighs.
Why good sleep melts fat.
This powerful tool for being trim and vital is neglected. A good nights sleep is
- 7-9- hours long, dependant upon individual needs;
- Waking without an alarm clock completely refreshed and ready for the day.
Starting simply, it is important to wind down before going to bed.
This involves avoiding screens just before going to bed. In other words, don’t watch telly or be on the computer.
During sleep we undergo various stages of deep sleep and REM sleep when the days events are gone over. According to Joe Griffin in his book, ‘Dreaming Realities’, REM sleep discharges unresolved events. Ideally a quarter of the sleep is REM, the rest is deep and restful. If we are over anxious, we spend more time in REM sleep, so wake tired and lacking motivation, despite having slept all night.5 It is virtually impossible to lose excess body fat if depressed and/or tired. It is hard enough to be motivated to get out of bed and stagger through the day without having to grapple with the desire for Haagen Daazs ice cream. Incidentally, if you look in the footnotes to the clip, you will see a mention made of Inositol for the over anxious. I can attest to the efficacy of this supplement.
As well as depression and anxiety, another reason for poor sleep quality is lack of the mineral magnesium. Like zinc and selenium, magnesium has been leached from the soil by decades of agro-chemicals being applied.6 Magnesium is counter pointed in the body by calcium. Calcium helps muscles contract, and magnesium helps them relax by pushing calcium out of the cells. So by increasing magnesium levels, muscles can relax properly when we are asleep. Magnesium also stops the stress hormones being triggered, again aiding proper sleep. And it is the mineral of weight loss – watch out for the blog.
So by sleeping well, stress level are reduced. If magnesium levels are improved, the body relaxes better and weight loss is aided. Of course, some stress is like the wallpaper – there all the time and unnoticed. And this starts in the brain, stemming from childhood traumas or from imbalances in the brain chemistry. In different ways, these both lead to overeating.
Some of the problems around food can also stem from childhood experience. Being forced to finish all the food on the plate or having eating rewarded by attention are typical issues that can be carried into adulthood leading to over eating. Of course, there are almost infinite other emotional issues which can result in comfort eating -as well as the stress response. If this is the case then part of the answer to successfully losing weight will involve going to see a therapist or possibly undergoing hypnosis. Essentially thinking has to be changed. It is not my area of expertise, but I do believe that bad therapists can be unhelpful, so choose carefully. Over the course of treatment, one should become aware of what actions can be taken to alter damaging patterns of behaviour.
This video is an excellent introduction to how our neurotransmitters work, and what happens when they are unbalanced:
This footnote leads to a brief synopsis7.
What does all this have to do with putting on weight? Well, one of the most common symptoms of neurotransmitter imbalance is cravings. For instance a lot of cardiovascular work lowers the happy neurotransmitter GABA in the brain leading to cravings for sweet things like fruit, choc-ices, chocolate, crisps or alcohol. Low serotonin levels which can be caused by blood sugar surges and crashes lead to craving sweeties. Low levels of endorphins lead to excessive exercising. Low levels of dopamine lead feeling very down and lacking in motivation. There are many reasons for neurotransmitter imbalances, one of them being genetic. Imbalances in the neurotransmitters essentially lead to craving sweet things or alcohol. They can also lead to addictive behaviours like gambling and alcoholism.
Taking appropriate amino acids will help. It is also important to sort out digestion since neurotransmitters are made in the gut – hence the term ‘gut feeling’. So poor digestive function can lead to cravings this way since amino acids are made from proteins in the food, which needs to be broken down properly to provide the raw ingredients. Without a good supply of properly broken down meat or fish, the brain starts to go awry and calls out for help – but that help is in the form of sweets, cakes, excessive fruit or maybe alcohol.
Now we’re going to look somewhere quite different. So far stress has been a player in all of the above. The next subject causes great stress on the liver and, of course, the scales.
Why toxicity hinders weight loss.
We live in a very toxic world. This isn’t as obvious as clouds of black smoke pouring out of industrial chimneys. Many fat soluble toxins are invisible to the eye or taste. Pesticides, petrochemicals, preservatives, plastic wrappings, PCBs and other modern baddies find their way into our bodies at every possible juncture. They are used in most industries, beauty products, fruits and vegetables, air fresheners and tap water. Not only are they fat soluble, they also trigger weight gain by making our hormonal system dysfunctional. Here is a diagram of the hormonal system, also known as the endocrine system.
Like the sites illustrated above, body fat is also a major endocrine organ.8
All of these sites report to the hypothalamus in the brain using hormones. As well as the famous fight or flight responses mentioned earlier, hormones are used by the body to cue the thyroid to work, the pancreas to produce insulin, the thymus to produce the T cells in the immune system and so on. Fat soluble toxins mimic, block or disrupt the actions of these hormones. So if your thyroid is not working properly, you will get fat. If insulin production is disrupted you will develop insulin resistance and, therefore, fat. Pesticides have a strong oestrogenic effect, leading to fat legs.
Here is a far from comprehensive list of fat soluble toxins:
- Parabens – look towards the end of the list of ingredients in your beauty products etc.
- Exhaust fumes
- Heavy metals
- PCBs. Used to line most tin cans and found in farmed fish
- Non-organic dairy. The cows will have ingested pesticides, so these are stored in their fat too.
- Organochlorines. Used to bleach paper – so use non bleached tea bags, for example
The other form of toxicity that makes us fat is caused by the wrong fats: too many fried foods, shop bought biscuits and too much sunflower oil. These fats lead to the cell walls in the body hardening and being unable to take up nutrients or expel waste products.
What to do?
If you have been struggling to lose weight because of the above toxins, the first step is to reduce exposure as much as possible. Never refill a plastic water bottle or leave it in the sun. This causes the oestrogenic plastics to leach into the water. Make sure your beauty products, hair products and soaps are paraben free and organic if possible. If you buy tinned food, choose the foods that are in oil and throw away the oil. Buy organic produce as much as possible.
To help detoxification, flavonoid rich vegetables and spices will help, like onions, black and green teas, the sulphuric vegetables9. Some dark chocolates are flavonoid rich as is red wine. Ultimately, though, it will help to do some careful liver detoxification. Careful because detoxifying is not as simple as it sounds. The wrong protocol will make things worse. Briefly, the liver detoxifies through a 2 stage process, the second stage being heavily protein dependant. Many detox diets avoid or restrict protein. Now protein is a major source of food sensitivity, and this is not good for you either. Liver detoxification is not to be undertaken lightly. Contact me if you need advice about how to do this.
As far as foods are concerned, the more you can cook yourself, using good fats and oils, the better.
A final piece of the jigsaw to explain why it is sometimes so hard to know when to stop eating.
Leptin is the hormone that tells us when we have eaten enough. What has been found out is that as we get fatter, we produce more leptin and end up becoming resistant to it – just as we can become insulin resistant. So as we get fatter, we become less and less aware of the signal that we have had enough to eat.
All of the above combined:
I recently attended a lecture given by Jeanette Bessinger where she rather neatly sums up why weight loss becomes so hard. The following factors combine:
- Glucose overload – too much sugar and eating too much;
- Insulin overload (also caused by sweetened drinks)
- Stress overload
- Food sensitivities
The cycle goes round and round with each part driving the next. Not only does the above combination cause us to put on weight, but it leads to:
- Imbalanced hunger;
- Uncontrollable cravings (from food sensitivities and neurotransmitter imbalance);
- Disrupted Palate (eating excess sugar leads to a sweeter and sweeter tooth);
- Food Addictions;
- Disabled satiety signal (leptin);
- Toxicity- and waste products from the cells can’t get out, as well as a toxic liver;
- Cellular Starvation – poor quality fat and imbalance between omega 3 and 6 oils leads to hardening of the cell walls so nutrients can no longer get in.
- Weight gain.
And ultimately to the diseases of non-insulin dependant diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, etc.
The final destructive key is the well meaning advice from government and nutritionists that demonises fat and proteins along with clever marketing by food and diet companies that champion their unhealthy or ineffective products. These lead people to very destructive eating patterns in an honest effort to lose weight.
Turning things around.
Hopefully it is now clearer as to why weight loss can be so difficult to achieve. Why we can be subject to uncontrollable cravings, lacking in lasting energy and motivation. Why reducing the amount of cake doesn’t necessarily have any effect on leg size. Why exercise that works for others does nothing for some stomachs.
To turn it all around requires a different way of looking at things. Instead of starting the latest diet craze or sitting in a heap of self loathing stuffing down a whole tube of Pringles, turn your mind to whys and hows. Is your digestion optimal? Is your sleep good and the right amount? Is your thyroid under-active due to toxicity? Do you actively seek to deal with stress in a constructive way? How much of that tummy is fat and how much of it is actually bloating?
The right supplements can also help weight loss. High quality omega 3 does much to help the cells regain elasticity. Magnesium helps by many methods. Zinc helps fussy eating. Various amino acids help reduce toxicity and cure cravings. These are the supplements that restore health so you can now start to lose weight. Contact me for more details.
Time to stop beating yourself up and start thinking. Stop doing the wrong thing and the right thing happens.
- Dallman M. et al. 2Chronic stress and obesity,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2003 Sept 30; 100(20): 11696-11701. Pub on line 2003 Sept 15. PMCID: PMC 208820. This study showed that eating comfort food as a response to stress encouraged abdominal fat storage for easy energy supply but it also helped reduce the stress response – it makes us feel better. Not everybody responds to stress in the same way – it is all rather complicated. If interested, I cannot recommend reading Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers highly enough [↩]
- Mayer E A. Gut. 2000Dec; 47 (6); 861-9. PMID: 11076888. There are many studies on the effect of stress on the guts. All show the link. [↩]
- belly fat travels more quickly to the liver for conversion to glucose for energy than thigh fat does [↩]
- it gets worse. These proteins are like parts of the body, so the immune system is primed to attack wheat protein, for example, but wheat protein is like cartilage in our body, so the immune system is now attacking the cartilage in our body as well. So arthritic knees are not due to wear and tear of the knees but wear and tear of the over stressed digestive system. Or the immune system becomes primed to attack the thyroid, leading to under-active thyroid – and fatness results. [↩]
- The clip in this footnote http://youtu.be/MA3Pc22WmwQ by Ivan Tyrell talks about the link between this and depression. [↩]
- As Robert Rakowski pointed out, a plant needs 17 different nutrients to be healthy, a human needs 30. The typical fertiliser comprises just 3 – Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Pre the invention of artificial fertilisers, waste products from vegetables, animals and us were rotted down and reapplied to the soil, so nutrients went round and round and the soil remained healthy. As a rather scary aside, water companies clean and dry sewage for application as a fertiliser, which should be good. But unfortunately they can’t clean the treated sewage of all the pharmaceuticals taken by people with cancer, say. [↩]
- A brief synopsis: the functional unit of the nervous system is called a neuron. Messages from the outside world about pain, pleasure, sadness, joy, stress and relaxation are relayed along the nerves powered by electricity. When the message gets to the neuron chemical molecules trapped inside holding tanks are freed by the electrical signal from the neuron/nerve end. The messenger then docks into a receptor neuron and results in behaviour or movement as appropriate. These chemical molecules are called neurotransmitters. For example serotonin plays numerous roles, not least in inhibiting our violent tendencies. Noradrenalin sounds the alarm about threats from the outside world and prepares us to fight or flee. Endorphins or Endogenous Morphines are our natural painkillers.
If electrical impulses go awry in the brain, the chemical transactions that are so dependent on them also go haywire. Mood disorders and mental illness can result from the change in the level of a single neurotransmitter. I would also refer you to my blog on the link between the health of the gut and mental health. [↩]
- Kershaw EE, Flier JS (20004). “Adipose tissue as an endocrine organ””. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Detab. 89(16): 2548-56. PMID 1518022 [↩]
- sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, watercress etc [↩]