There’s a joke that says the virus is called COVID-19 because 19 is the number of pounds we will gain during the pandemic. But pandemic weight gain is no joke for those of us who spent the past year and a half overeating, staying on the couch and staying out of the gym.
The average American gained two pounds a month during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. You can blame the weight gain on a lack of exercise, or you can blame it on a lack of willpower. But a neurologist blames it on brain chemistry that evolved in humans over thousands of years.
Dr. Steven Goldstein is the founder of the Houston Healthcare Initiative. He talked with InsuranceNewsNet about the stress and anxiety behind the weight gain and how to shed the pounds.
The main reasons for the weight gain were stress and anxiety surrounding social isolation, he said. “People weren’t doing very much activity, so their whole lifestyle changed, but their eating habits didn’t. And on top of that, you have anxiety and stress that release hormones such as adrenaline and epinephrine into the body, and the sympathetic nervous system gets stimulated. This is what happens during chronic stress.”
In addition, he said, stress is tied to the “fight or flight” response that has been hardwired into the human brain.
“From an evolutionary point of view, the adrenaline release was there when there was an acute stressor, like a predator that’s about to eat you,” Goldstein said. “You would naturally want to run away or figure some way to get the predator to go someplace else. If you were successful, you were able to outrun the predator and get away. That was great — the stress was over. Or if the predator caught you, the stress also was over because you weren’t around anymore. So that system works. But chronically, it leads to all sorts of hormonal changes in the body.”
Stress turns off the parasympathetic nervous system while stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, Goldstein said. The result is that digestion is slowed down.
“People think they can control their behavior and then can do what they want. They’re so wrong,” he said. “The unconscious brain has a lot to say about what goes on in the body.”
One example, he said, is the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the regulation of internal organ functions such as digestion, heart rate and respiratory rate.
“But when you are stressed, the vagus nerve is shut down and digestion slows down,” he said. “There are hormones such as leptin that are released during digestion. Leptin stimulates the vagus nerve to tell your brain you’ve had enough to eat, so you get a feeling that you know you’re full, you don’t want to eat anymore.”
But if leptin is not released, your brain doesn’t get the message that the stomach has enough food, Goldstein said. “So you’re still hungry and you keep eating.”
Willpower is not the key to avoiding weight gain, Goldstein said. Getting stress and anxiety under control is.
“You can say, ‘Well, I have willpower. I’m hungry, but I’m not going to eat.’ We know how long that lasts. You might be able to do that for a little while, but you can’t do that for very long. So then you start eating.”
Stress causes the brain to crave energy, Goldstein said, setting the stage for overeating.
“Heightened states of stress and anxiety require more calories to keep the brain on high alert,” he said. “We eat sugar to get a boost of energy. Sugar gets converted to energy faster but does not last long, requiring more sugar. It is a cycle that is unhealthy short term but really bad long term.”
Stress not only makes the brain crave unhealthy foods, but it also decreases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, Goldstein said. The results are lethargy and increased anxiety levels.
Control Your Stress, Conquer Your World
So how do you control your stress? The first step, Goldstein said, is to understand the problem that is making you feel anxious. If it’s a problem that you can solve — for example, you are having financial concerns — you can work through some solutions instead of merely worrying about the problem.
“You have to attack the problem and figure a way out,” he said. “For example, if you are having financial problems, you can make a budget and stick with it, or you can find ways of earning additional money. If you just worry, it’s not going to get you anywhere, and it only will increase your stress.”
But if there’s a situation that you can’t fix, Goldstein advised thinking through some possible scenarios or eventually telling yourself that there’s nothing you can do about it and moving on.
For example, if you live in a hurricane-prone area, there’s nothing you can do to keep a hurricane from striking your community. But you can prepare — perhaps buying a generator or devising an evacuation plan.
Goldstein had some advice for those who want to tap into their bodies’ evolutionary mechanisms in order to lose some pandemic weight.
“The main thing is to get control of your stress and anxiety,” he said. “You can practice tai chi, yoga or meditation — some of the Eastern ways of trying to relax. And then you can tell yourself that it’s not your fault, it’s not because you don’t have willpower. This is a hormonal problem — it’s not that you’re a bad person.