By: Jean Richards

We are all likely to suffer from high stress levels at some point in our lives, and in today’s crowded, busy, fast paced world stress is definitely on the increase. But if left unchecked, high levels of long term stress can wreak havoc with your looks and increase your waistline for a number of reasons.

Part of our physical reaction to stress means our bodies go into a sort of primitive ‘survival mode’ – several hormones including cortisol and adrenalin are released which cause our blood pressure and heart rate to rise, our digestive activity to be suspended and blood to be diverted to our muscles and skin. Our body is preparing us for fight or flight!

These changes can significantly affect the way you feel – you may be irritable and anxious, and find it hard to concentrate or to relax. You may also find it difficult to sleep properly, and this can leave you looking tired and feeling unmotivated to exercise. Even worse you may also start craving comfort foods full of fat and sugar. Add to this the fact that high levels of cortisol can cause the body to store fat around the abdomen, and you will soon see the pounds piling on.

But stress can affect you in other ways too. It can cause symptoms such as digestive disorders, muscular tension and headaches which will make you look and feel unhappy, and leave you with little energy to participate in life with a smile and a sparkle. As well as unhealthy food cravings, you may turn to other ‘props’ to help you cope such as caffeine, cigarettes or alcohol, all of which can affect your general health and complexion. Alongside this, stress can cause hair loss and skin rashes, and there is increasing evidence to show that it also accelerates the aging process (just look at how US presidents age after four years!). All in all, the chances are that if you are suffering from long term stress, you are not going to be looking your best.

So what can you do to combat stress, and at the same time shed those extra pounds and bring back a healthy glow? Here are five tips which will help.

1. Take regular exercise. Sounds pretty obvious, but it is well worth fighting the urge to slob out and instead do something active such as swimming, cycling, jogging or hiking. Not only will it help fight the flab, it will also metabolize those fight or flight hormones and make you feel much better.

2. Cut out stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine because they can make you feel wound up and jittery and affect the quality of your sleep.

3. Cut out refined sugar foods and drinks such as cookies, chocolate and sodas. As well as adding unwanted calories to the diet, they can also trigger the release of more adrenalin into the body thus aggravating stress symptoms.

4. Give yourself a makeover. There is nothing like a new hair style, a facial or a new outfit to boost your self esteem and confidence, thereby increasing your resillience to stress.

5. Treat yourself to a massage. As well as being incredibly relaxing, massage increases your circulation and boosts the lymphatic system which is responsible for eliminating toxins, so you will be left feeling relaxed and refreshed, and looking great!