Are you constantly stressed? If so, it could be affecting your weight. Ongoing, chronic stress is strongly linked to weight gain. When faced with stressful situations, our adrenal systems release cortisol — a stress hormone that regulates a series of bodily processes. Cortisol influences blood sugar levels, macronutrient metabolism, blood pressure, and the central nervous system, as well as many other functions throughout the body. Cortisol also affects our body’s production of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which play important roles in appetite and weight.
Stress, weight gain, and cortisol
When our bodies release cortisol, our energy, metabolism, and blood flow are all directed to support our survival instinct. This “fight or flight” response was necessary back when stressful situations meant running away from bears or facing other circumstances that threatened our survival. Today, many of the stressful situations we find ourselves in don’t require this type of survival response.
While the secretion of cortisol is necessary to help the body deal with stress, it’s important that cortisol levels return to normal following stressful events. Otherwise, chronic stress that doesn’t go away can cause our hormones to remain imbalanced and throw off our blood sugar, leptin, and ghrelin levels. This chemical response can eventually lead to weight gain and obesity.
How stress increases cortisol
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, and sends signals to the brain to regulate blood pressure and immune functions. A cortisol spike will signal your body to consume more calories and put insulin production on hold. These responses are conditioned to boost your energy and immunity, which is helpful in stressful situations such as fighting predators and getting out of danger’s way.
How cortisol causes weight gain
Chronic stress from everyday life can kick your cortisol production into overdrive and lead to overeating. Cortisol can also signal the brain that it’s time to replenish your nutrients, and drive you to eat even when you’re not necessarily hunger or don’t need more food.
Over time, chronic stress can slow the metabolism and affect the way the body stores fat. Visceral abdominal fat is linked to this adrenal imbalance caused by stress. This type of belly fat is dangerous because it can raise cholesterol and insulin levels, and increase the risk of heart disease.
How stress causes weight gain
Chronic stress can trigger weight gain in a number of ways, for a number of reasons. First, the hormonal imbalances caused by increased cortisol levels can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar and hunger hormones.
Increased blood sugar can pave the way for insulin resistance, which is major risk factor for weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Imbalances in leptin can interrupt signals to the brain that say you’re full, which can lead to overeating. Imbalances in ghrelin can suppress your appetite and increase the risk of binge-eating later on, and trigger cravings for sweets and junk foods.
Stress can also lead to emotional eating, and have you reaching for comfort foods you normally wouldn’t eat when you’re in better spirits. Treating yourself to foods like pizza, fried chicken, donuts, and other goodies may be okay every once in awhile in moderation, but suffering chronic stress can lead to an excess in these indulgences to cause weight gain.
Can stress and anxiety cause weight gain?
Many people tend to use the terms “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably. But the difference is that stress is a response to threatening situations, while anxiety is the body’s natural reaction to stress.
Anxiety can be defined as excessive worry or fear about situations to come. Anxiety that becomes persistent can affect your body in many of the same ways as chronic stress.
Symptoms that occur in those who experience chronic stress and anxiety include:
- Sleep deprivation
- Rapid heart rate
- Muscle tension
- Rapid breathing
- Irrational anger
Just like stress, symptoms of anxiety can upset the body’s healthy hormonal balance to cause fluctuations that ultimately cause weight gain. Sleep deprivation is another major factor that can cause weight gain, since the body produces less melatonin when you’re not getting enough sleep. Melatonin drives metabolism, weight loss, and muscle gain, which is why those who lack sleep tend to have a slower metabolism and are more prone to gaining weight.
Can stress cause weight gain without overeating?
Experiencing brief bouts of stress can actually suppress your appetite, which is a normal response to fight-or-flight situations. This is why you may not feel like eating immediately after dealing with a stressful situation. But chronic stress usually has the opposite effect.
Even if you make a conscious effort not to overeat when dealing with stress, your body can still gain weight due to the chemical changes that occur in your body due to high cortisol levels. For instance, too much cortisol can lower your metabolism and cause weight gain even if you’re eating the same amounts of the foods you normally eat.
High levels of cortisol can also impact blood sugar levels, increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, and affect the way your body stores fat, thereby increasing belly fat. Dealing with chronic stress can also indirectly cause weight gain without overeating, in that you may be too busy or distracted to stick to a regular exercise routine.
How to manage stress and weight gain
Since stress is an unavoidable part of our daily lives, it’s imperative that we learn ways to lower our stress levels. Here’s a list of helpful tips that can help you manage stress and weight gain.
1. Stay physically active doing things you enjoy
Any type of physical exercise is beneficial, but doing something active that is also fun provides both a physical and a mental release. Try rock climbing or bicycling, or increase your daily activity level by gardening or dancing in your home. You may also go for regular walks with friends and neighbors. Any type of physical activity is better than none, and can play an important role in reducing your stress and excess weight.
2. Practice deep breathing exercises
For five minutes every day, sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing. Breathe slowly and try to make your inhalations and exhalations the same length. If you’re feeling a bit more experimental, practice alternate nostril breathing, which helps calm the mind during times of anxiety or stress.
3. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
Sleep deprivation is hazardous to your health and can make it more difficult for you to deal with stressful situations. Aim for between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night, and go to bed at the same time every night to maintain a solid sleep schedule.
4. Find something that makes you laugh
Laughter is scientifically proven to relieve stress, as it can naturally increase endorphins, stimulate blood flow and circulation, and relax your muscles. Laughter can also boost your immunity by causing the body to release neuropeptides that fight stress and illness. Spend more time with people who make you laugh, or watch funny movies or shows that put you in a better mood.
5. Identify your stress triggers and avoid them
If rush hour traffic sets you on edge, consider changing your driving route or work schedule to avoid heavy traffic. If shopping on weekends stresses you out, limit your shopping to weeknights or early mornings when you don’t have to face crowds. Know what your stress triggers are, and modify your lifestyle as needed to reduce or avoid those particular stressors. Control what you can, and learn to let go of the rest.
6. Spend more time with pets
Animals like cats and dogs are proven to relieve stress due to the way they show unconditional love and loyalty. Pets can make you laugh, make you feel less lonely, and even reduce your blood pressure and boost heart health. Spend more quality time with your pets, or with a friend or neighbor’s pet to reduce stress.
7. Take stress-relieving dietary supplements like Sereniti
Certain herbal extracts like magnolia and phellodendron bark can help you manage stress by reducing irritability, improving sleep, and regulating your emotions. Sereniti contains these and a blend of other herbal extracts that can help you manage stress and weight gain.
8. Volunteer your time
Giving your time to a good cause can have a positive impact on your perspective and view of the world, and could even make your biggest stressors seem less significant. Volunteer your time to an organization or cause that makes you feel as if you’re making a positive difference in the world — whether it be working at a soup kitchen or thrift store, or babysitting your neighbor’s children free of charge.
9. Avoid stress-causing foods
Sugar, alcohol, and processed carbs are just some foods shown to worsen stress due to the way they affect cortisol, blood sugar, and brain neurotransmitters that control your mood. Stop eating these types of stress-causing foods, including fast foods and any other processed foods, and you’ll benefit from weight loss in addition to less stress.
10. Establish boundaries and priorities
Saying “yes” to things you shouldn’t, such as extra work projects or impromptu visits from family members, can raise your stress levels. Establish boundaries and don’t be afraid to say no if you feel that these extras could lead to more stress. Also, prioritize things in life that can reduce your stress and help you stay healthy, such as exercise and quality time with your loved ones.
11. Love your body
Body shame and poor body image are major sources of stress that will only drive weight gain. If you foster negative feelings about your body, make a series of healthy lifestyle changes to not only improve the way you feel physically, but to feel better mentally as well. Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and good nutrition are all healthy lifestyle behaviors that can make you feel better both inside and out.
12. Take a break from social media
Spending too much time on social media has been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression due to factors such as jealousy and keeping up with the demands of posting and replying to updates. Disconnect yourself from social media to reduce your stress, and understand that those who truly care about you will make the effort to get in touch with you if you’re not available on social media.
13. Inhale stress-reducing scents
Lavender, sandalwood, and bergamot are just some scents proven to naturally reduce stress and anxiety. Aromatherapy is the term used to describe the act of improving your mood using certain scents. Use scented candles or essential oils to relieve stress and help you relax.
14. Chew gum
The next time you’re feeling stressed, try popping a piece of gum into your mouth to promote relaxation and a greater well-being. Evidence suggests that chewing gum promotes blood flow and can help you relax, and can even help you lose weight by increasing your metabolic rate by as much as 19%.
15. Listen to soothing music
Slow-paced instrumental music like classical or jazz can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones, which can help you relax and experience less stress and anxiety. Other music genres that can help reduce stress include Celtic, Indian, and nature sounds. Next time you’re feeling a bit high-strung, take time out to put on playlist that can soothe and calm you down.
16. Practice mindfulness
At times of stress and anxiety, a racing mind can prevent you from calming down and feeling fully relaxed. The act of practicing mindfulness can refocus your thoughts on the present moment to relieve your stress and help you relax. To practice mindfulness, find a quiet place where you can relax without distractions and pay attention to what’s going on in the present moment. Focus on your breathing and to how your body is feeling at that moment, and return to your focus to these things when your mind starts to wander.
17. Write down your stressors
When you’re experiencing stress and anxiety, take some time to write down your stressors and worries in a journal or on a piece of paper. This act can “transfer” your stressors to another source and help you experience release. Then, you can come back to tackling these stressors on your terms when you’re feeling mentally refreshed and focused.
Garcia Weight Loss and Wellness Centers are committed to your complete well-being. Our customized weight-loss plans are designed to address the factors that make weight loss difficult for you — including chronic stress and hormonal imbalances. Contact us today for a no-cost consultation!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on January 22, 2019
Karen Eisenbraun is a certified holistic nutrition consultant and writer with a background in digital marketing. She has written extensively on the topics of nutrition and holistic health for many leading websites.
Karen received her nutrition certification from the American College of Healthcare Sciences in 2012. She follows a ketogenic diet and practices intermittent fasting. Karen advocates a whole foods approach to nutrition and believes in empowering yourself with information that allows you to make smarter decisions about your health.