Worry, Poor Sleep, and Stubborn Weight
Liz, 38, a mom of 5 boys ranging in age from 12 down to 2 years old, was dealing with a lot of stress and about 50 pounds more weight on her frame than she felt good about – or was healthy for her as her blood sugar and cholesterol were also starting to edge up. She was coming to me as her functional medicine doctor for help with sleep, weight, sugar cravings, “brain fog,” worry bordering on anxiety – and to “get her health back on track.”
“I’ve always been a ‘bigger’ girl,” the 5’10” woman sitting in front of me said, “but in the past I have been able to lose weight. That was before last two babies, though, and right now, I’m so stressed out – worried about the boys, finances, my mother who’s getting older and now needs my help a lot more on top of it all – that I just can’t get a handle on anything.” I think the hardest part is I’m just not getting any sleep, so I wake up already tired, cranky and a little blue, and then eat sugar throughout the day to keep going and in some way, reward myself. I know it’s not good for me – but without the sleep, it’s just tough to quit. With all the worry and fatigue I’m also having some “brain fog.” I just can’t seem to focus on anything.
I asked Liz what had helped her lose weight in the past, to which she replied Weight Watchers. “Being mindful of my calories helped me stay focused –though,” she admitted, “sometimes I ate those calories in Hershey’s kisses, not salads. We both chuckled and talked about how one of the greatest powers of a program like Weight Watchers is also having external accountability and a community with a similar goal.
I also asked her what she thought was keeping her up at night, to which she quickly replied “worry’ and thinking about everything I have to do the next day – then I’m so overwhelmed I can’t sleep. As is typical for so many women, she was managing the household; the family finances, doing all the shopping and cooking, and her husband traveled a lot for work. She was also homeschooling the kids, and had little time to herself.
In addition to ordering common lab work to make sure Liz’s thyroid function was normal (it was), and that her nutritional status was good (she needed some vitamin D supplementation and magnesium, but was not anemic – which was important to find out because anemia can also cause fatigue and low mood), thanks to Liz, I invited her to try a new practice I invented for her on the spot and jokingly called her “Worry Watchers Journal”, a technique I’ve since shared with hundreds of women over 5 years.
The Worry Watchers Journal
I told Liz that while I wasn’t going to encourage her to count the calories in her diet this time – that I was going to teach her other, more effective ways to learn to be mindful of her food and make healthy, not just calorie counted choices (in my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, I write about why all calories aren’t created equally, and so counting them is not the ticket to effective and sustainable weight loss – though the plan in my new book is!). “But,” I told her, “We are going to count ‘worry minutes’ as if they were calories!”
I then asked her how many worry minutes a day she thought she’d realistically need to feel “full’ from worrying and she said 30 minutes – partly laughing at the thought, but also intrigued. I told her first assignment was to split the “worry calories” into “two portions” each day – 15 minutes in the early part of the day, and the remaining 15 minutes to be used up about 45 minutes before going to bed each night. I asked her to get a cheap notebook and a pen, and put them somewhere in her house that she could sit and write for 15 minutes twice each day, which I encouraged her to do with commitment. The only rule is couldn't do the worry journaling in her bedroom –because I wanted the association of worrying to be far away from her bed – which was to be increasingly associated with relaxation.
She, to my great understanding as a mom of four myself, chose her bedroom’s large walk-in closet because it was the best (and only) place to steal away from the family and get privacy other than her bathroom. The closet seemed a more creative place for writing and relaxing. Each morning just after the boys ate breakfast, she’d steal away to her ‘writing closet’ journal and pen in hand, and then she’d head there again in the hour before bed after the boys settled down.
Here’s the practice: In the morning she was to pour out onto paper everything she would usually worry about throughout her day – just write it anyway she felt like it – bullet points, sentences, words – just no self-editing. Then at night, the practice was a little different. She was to again write down everything that would usually keep her up at night with worry but additionally, afterward, on a new sheet of paper in her notebook, she was to jot down every single task she could think of that she needed to do the next day – you know, the kinds of things that would keep her up overwhelmed just thinking about, or the last minute “Oh shoot” things that she’d usually have to pop up and text herself to remember to do.
Now here’s the trick of how this contains the stress and eventually clears it: Like Weight Watchers calories, you can use them however you want to – you can use those 30 minutes each day to worry as much and as hard as you want to. But when each 15 minutes of worry is done, that’s it. No more worrying allowed until the next session. No more energy (calories, by the way, are a form of energy, too) wasted on worrying.
If worry thoughts came in you tell them – “Uh – you’ve had you’re time already today guys – that’s it. I’ll see you for 15 minutes tonight, or I’ll see you tomorrow morning” – if they crop up while you’re going to sleep. It's amazing – but after not too long of sticking with this new habit, the worry thoughts start to fade – they become invisible ink. And eventually they're just not even there anymore.
And lo and behold, by the time you complete your “what I have to do tomorrow” practice before bed, you’ve got your next day’s to do list already ironed out – so you can tell all those thoughts, “Hey, I’ve got you taken care of, too – and if you didn’t make my list already, I’ll get you tomorrow.” Then ideally after your evening practice, stay off of all electronic devices for the remainder of the evening, and try to fit in a hot shower or a Replenish Bath (1-2 cups Epsom Salts and 7-10 drops Lavender Essential Oil in a hot bath), and 3-5 minutes of deep breathing as she was going to sleep.
As so many women have also now experienced, and as you can too, Liz was able to get her sleep back on track, which also helped her to clear her cravings, which in turn, helped her lose that stubborn weight. And she began to have the energy she was so missing, and more even moods. And that brain fog cleared up. It didn’t take long for her to start seeing results in her mind and mood – just a few days – and in just a few weeks she began to drop pounds – and inches. She even eventually introduced a meditation practice in the mornings and before bed to her boys – and noticed them calming down!
Why This Resets Your Mind, Mood, Energy, Weight, and More
Worry is a powerful ‘toxin,’ causing chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which is released from our adrenal glands when we are stressed, worried, or overwhelmed – which for most of us is a ‘triple threat’ most of the time. Lack of enough or lack of refreshing sleep also acts as a toxin – it too can keep your cortisol jacked up or out of rhythm, leading to the same problems as worry – and as you probably already know first hand, worry and lousy sleep tend to go hand in hand.
While in small regular doses, or even bigger short-lived bursts when needed to protect our health, cortisol a powerful survival hormone that controls inflammation, immunity, and harmonizes our circadian rhythms, to name a few of its seemingly endless important actions, when we’re chronically exposed to abnormally high levels, its benefits backfire and it causes us to hold onto weight especially around our middle, leads to cravings for sugar, carbs, and fatty salty snacks, it disrupts our sleep making it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, or feel rested even after a good night’s sleep, it causes all kinds of hormone imbalances, and hijacks our sex drive – to name just a few of the dozens of impacts I talk about in The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. When this goes on for too long we can end up with some serious health problems – hormonal problems, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even problems like autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s being a classic example) and dementia.
What most women trying to lose weight, get better sleep, and get their health back don’t know is that we’re up against something much bigger than just our own will power or the food industry which keeps junk foods practically always within arms reach. We’re up against biological survival hardwiring. We have an ancient internal wiring system that starts in our brain and ends in the release of cortisol (and another important chemical, adrenaline), designed to keep us alive. This system determines what we crave, from food to sex, what we grab for when we’re standing in front of the open fridge at night if we’re tired and stressed, and WHY that first bite into the Snickers barn at 4 in the afternoon literally makes us sigh with relief – based on our intense drive for survival. It’s why sometimes we just can’t stop at one cookie! And it’s why we just can’t lose weight, just can’t fall asleep, or just can’t seem to relax.
This system gets turned on when we’re in survival mode. And let’s face it: Most of us are living in survival mode most of the time. This leads to adrenal overdrive, and eventually, what’s commonly called adrenal fatigue. The chemicals that get pumped out when our survival-mode hardwiring is activated wreak havoc on our gut health, sleep, hormones, weight, mood, mental concentration, immune system, and energy.
Ready to Reset – for Less than Two Dollars?
We have to break out of the survival mode way of being to reset our stress response. It’s the first and one of the surest steps to be able to kick your cravings, trim down those muffin tops, get better sleep and start to feel like your happier self again – without even having to go on a crazy diet or exercise plan. And in fact, it’s one of the secrets to being able to stick with your healthy food and exercise plans – because cortisol imbalances sabotage your willpower by changing the neural circuitry to the part of your brain where you have executive control over your choices – your pre-frontal cortex.
The beauty of The Worry Watchers Journal, as I continue to call it, is that much like meditation and journaling, which have been shown to reset an over-activated stress response, this practice also helps you to dial down this over-activated part of your nervous system – called the sympathetic nervous system –by switching on its calmer counterpart – the parasympathetic nervous system – which allows us to once again feel calm, cool, and relaxed. And even more beautiful is that done regularly, you can eventually become so reset that you don’t need to keep the journal daily – you can just pull it out as needed for a quick reset. It’s an easy practice to you can do at home – or anywhere – for no more than the price of a $1.29 notebook and pen from your local drug store!
So go ahead, grab that notebook, maybe even some Epsom salts and lavender oil, and start your own Worry Watcher practice. It feels great and is one of the fastest and surest ways to start to reset your adrenal stress system from alarm to calm.
Can't wait to hear how it goes for you. Let me know in the comments! And if you want to learn more about how to reset your adrenals and take back your energy, health, focus, and mood – head on over here and grab your copy. And don't wait – there are some really special gift bonuses going on right now!