In 2020, the American Institute of Stress published some devastating statistical data. According to their latest statistics, up to 33% of the American population deal with extreme stress. Approximately 77% of them have reported that stress has affected their physical health. Also, 73% have said that stress had a negative impact on their mental health (1). These are all quite worrying numbers, especially when we think of all the stress-induced health risks. One of those risks happens to be obesity. In the following, we will speak about the possible link between stress and weight gain and try to understand how the two may be connected.
The Negative Effects of Stress on Our Body
For the longest time now, we have been aware of the toll that stress has on our mental, physical, and emotional health. In the beginning, you may be unaware that it is all that gathered up stress that causes all those changes. After a while, though, even you cannot deny the fact that it all has to do with stress.
When you find yourself in a stressful situation, your body automatically starts to produce the so-called stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is produced and released by your adrenal glands as a response to a threat in addition to adrenalin, another famous hormone. In return, your glucose levels spike up as extra glucose is released into the bloodstream. Glucose is our body’s primary energy source. This is described as the body’s fight or flight response. With all of the extra glucose in your blood, you have enough energy to either fight or run away from the supposed threat. That is why in a stressful situation, you feel your heart racing, your breathing quickens, and your muscles tighten (2).
Once the threat has been subsided, your adrenaline levels go back to normal and your glucose spike drops. Cortisol, on the other hand, acts to replenish the energy supply as soon as possible. And since our primary energy source is food, cortisol acts to increase our appetite. This, and the cortisol’s impact on our weight, will be discussed shortly.
What we want to talk about first is what happens when you are constantly exposed to stress. When this happens, your body’s cortisol levels are constantly high. This, of course, has a poor impact on every aspect of both your health and life. Unfortunately, no part of our body is immune to the negative effects of stress.
You may find yourself becoming easily agitated and moody. Some describe this condition as constantly feeling overwhelmed. Chronic stress can also cause low energy levels, insomnia, headaches, and even digestive issues. Some of the long-term consequences of chronic stress include depression, anxiety, menstrual problems in women, skin issues, and heart disease (3, 4).
How Does Stress Cause Weight gain?
One of the common issues with chronic stress is uncontrolled weight gain. You may not realize it at first, but chronic stress greatly affects your appetite and with that, your weight. In the following, we will explain how chronic stress is linked to weight gain and obesity.
1. Cortisol is an effective appetite stimulant
We mentioned cortisol being a powerful appetite stimulant. Now, we will go into a bit more detail so that you can truly understand where his actual power lies. As explained, once your adrenaline levels go back to normal, it is up to your cortisol to replenish the lost energy. To do that, cortisol refers to the fastest energy source which happens to be sugar (5, 6).
If you think about it, very few people act rationally and reach for something healthy when dealing with stress. For most of us, our go-to food is anything covered with sugar. Knowing this, we can explain why for so many of us sugar is our comfort food (7, 8).
This, however, has its downsides as well. Our body tends to store sugar in the form of fat. We mostly see fat being stored around the belly, especially in women. Another downside is that abdominal fat is linked to a long list of potential health risks in addition to being incredibly hard to shed (9).
It is truly a vicious cycle that tends to repeat itself over and over again due to the continuous exposure to chronic stress. And so, you get stressed, release cortisol, crave sugar, eat way too much sugar, and gain weight over and over again. This, of course, will result in becoming overweight and even obese.
2. Cortisol alters your metabolism
Let’s say that you are not eating fatty and sugary foods in response to a stressful situation. Cortisol will still find a way to make your weight loss incredibly difficult. Cortisol is able to slow your metabolism down. This means that you will be burning fewer calories on a daily basis, thus burning less fat and losing little to no weight whatsoever.
A 2015 study published in Biological Psychiatry explained that cortisol is causing our metabolism to slow down. All participants were fed a high-fat, high-calorie meal before measuring their metabolic rates and after having interviewed them about any stressful events in their life (10).
The results showed that the participants who were exposed to at least one stressor during the previous 24 hours burned 104 calories less as compared to the non-stressed participants. The researchers also measured higher insulin levels among the stressed participants. Insulin, too, contributes to fat storage, especially around the abdominal area. They also came to the conclusion that at this rate, the stressed participants could gain up to 11 pounds a year.
3. Cortisol affects your sleep quality
Experts constantly remind us how important it is to get at least 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night. With a good reason, that is. Sleep is essential for our good health. However, many of us rarely get the opportunity to go through a night of quality sleep. We listed insomnia as one of the side-effects due to chronic stress but there are many other possible causes for insomnia as well.
As for stress, by causing insomnia, it directly influences our ghrelin levels. Ghrelin is yet another essential hormone in the body. It is the primary hunger hormone and the one that causes you to eat even when you are not truly hungry. Insomnia and chronic fatigue, as a side-effect of stress, causes the levels of ghrelin to rise. So, stress will not only prevent you from falling asleep, but chances are that you will also spend the night binge eating in front of the TV (11, 12).
Stress-induced Habits That May Lead to Weight Gain
Other than the hormonal changes that we discussed, various stress-induced unhealthy habits and behaviors lead to weight gain. Although we mentioned some of them, we will now go into a bit more detail.
1. Emotional eating
Emotional eating is one of the many body’s mechanisms to suppress and/or soothe any negative feelings. This is a common behavior that we see happening due to chronic stress. Emotional eating often results in feelings of shame and/or guilt which then lead to yet another vicious cycle. The result is of course uncontrolled weight gain and obesity (13).
Higher than normal cortisol levels is one of the most common causes of emotional eating. Not only is cortisol making us crave unhealthy food, but it is also making us eat more than we normally do. This explains why, in events of chronic stress, you find yourself reaching for any food that you can find.
2. Eating comfort food
We already discussed the concept of eating comfort food as a response to stress. But there is far more to it than you think. When exposed to stress, we tend to make irrational decisions, especially when it comes to food. Stress exhausts us mentally and physically.
When you find yourself in such a state, it is very unlikely that you will take the time to cook a healthy meal at home. Instead, we go after a more accessible option in the form of take-out, fast food, and microwave dinners. All of these foods are filled with way too many calories, fat, and carbs and way too few nutrients. Eating like this on a daily basis is what will then lead to weight gain and obesity.
3. Skipping meals
Stress can make us forget all about regular meals. Often, when we have way too much on our minds and feel stressed out, we forget all about the importance of eating three meals a day. You may find yourself skipping breakfast in the morning or skipping lunch during your lunch break.
What you do not realize is that this kind of behavior has negative effects later. As soon as you can get your hands on food, it is very likely that you will eat whatever you find, as fast as you possibly can. Sooner than you realize, you are stuffed with unhealthy food and have unintentionally contributed to gaining weight.
4. Being less physically active
Leading a stressful, busy life often leaves little to no time to exercise and move your body. You tend to constantly find ways that will save you time, even at the cost of your health. And so, you may order your grocery online, take the elevator, and drive your car to even the nearest location. Physical activity is essential, not only for our health but also for maintaining a healthy weight. Moving less means that you are burning fewer calories (14). This on top of all those excess calories that you are consuming throughout the day will surely result in weight gain and obesity.
5. Sleeping less
When feeling stressed out, you may no longer consider sleeping a priority. Stress can also no longer make sleeping a possibility for you. Both scenarios can significantly influence your appetite and with that contribute to weight gain. Sleeping less can also cause physical and mental fatigue. Feeling exhausted can greatly contribute to unhealthy eating habits and so make weight loss a more difficult goal to accomplish.
The Many Health Risks of Stress-related Weight Gain
Both stress and stress-induced weight gain have a negative impact on one’s health status. Once stress and weight gain reach their final peak, they become very difficult to manage in addition to causing a long list of serious health issues. We mentioned depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, and obesity as the most common side-effects of chronic stress. Here are the biggest consequences of uncontrolled weight gain.
- Heart disease;
- Coronary heart disease;
- High blood pressure;
- High LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, high triglycerides levels;
- Gallbladder disease;
- Type 2 diabetes, etc.
How to Reduce Your Stress Levels?
After learning about all the different ways in which stress threatens your mind and body it is time to learn a few effective techniques that will help reduce your stress levels. The following methods are easy enough so that you implement them in your day-to-day life but still effective enough that they help eliminate chronic stress.
- Practice yoga. Yoga is a great way to exercise both your body and mind. It has plenty of beneficial effects that you should not miss out on. Yoga is especially beneficial for those struggling with anxiety and depression as a side-effect of chronic stress. A 2020 systematic review investigated the effects of yoga among children and adolescents diagnosed with depression and anxiety. 58% of the participants showed improvements in both their anxiety and depression symptoms (15). This is one of the many scientific studies that speak of and prove the use of yoga for the purpose of improving one’s health.
- Meditate daily. Meditation is yet another great way to relieve stress and calm your mind. In 2014, a meta-analysis of a total of 47 trials in 3,515 participants has linked mindful meditation to improved symptoms of stress-induced anxiety and depression (16). At first, you may find it hard to empty your mind from all of your thoughts and focus solely on your breathing. But over time, you will surely get used to it and the positive impact that it has on your mental and physical health.
- Find a new hobby. Listen to music or a podcast, read a new book, or work in your garden. Whatever it is that keeps your mind calm, do it. A new hobby can help keep your mind busy but in a positive way so much so that you forget about your troubles. It does not have to be anything big, as long as it calms you and you feel fulfilled.
- Ask for professional help. If you feel as if this is all too much to handle, the next step would be to ask for professional help. You should never be ashamed to talk about your mental health, especially to a trained professional. They can help you develop effective stress-relief strategies that you can later implement in your everyday life, thus relieving the effects that chronic stress has on your body and mind.
Are you feeling as if your binge eating has gotten out of control? Are you feeling more stressed out than usual? Perhaps it is your chronic stress that has transformed your body, adding a few extra pounds and layers of fat. If that is the case, you may want to work on reducing your stress levels and calming your mind in addition to regular exercise and a healthy diet. This combination is bound to bring your weight once again down within its normal ranges.