Stress and Weight Gain: Understanding the Connection

Stress and Weight Gain: Understanding the Connection

If there’s one thing that unites us, it’s stress.

In fact, data from the 2017 Stress in America Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 3 out of 4 Americans reported experiencing at least one stress symptom in the last month.

Unfortunately, all of this excess stress can lead to an increase in weight. And whether the extra weight is a result of overeating and unhealthy food choices, or your body’s response to increased levels of cortisol, getting a handle on stress is a priority if you want to prevent stress-related weight gain.

What stress does to your body

You may not notice it at first, but stress can have a noticeable effect on your body.

From tight muscles and headaches to feeling irritated, overwhelmed, and out of control, stress takes a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health.

In many cases, you’ll feel the effects of stress right away. But there are other ways your body responds to stress, such as weight gain, that may take time to notice.

According to Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a weight loss physician, your body responds to stress by increasing levels of cortisol, which gets the body ready to “fight or flee.”

Cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands, increases in response to a threat. When you no longer perceive a threat, cortisol levels return to normal.

But if stress is always present, you can experience an overexposure to cortisol, which Seltzer says is a problem since cortisol is also a significant appetite stimulant.

“This is why so many people respond to stress by going for comfort food,” he explains.

And to make matters worse, Seltzer also points out that excess calories consumed in the setting of high cortisol appear to be preferentially deposited around the middle.

What’s more, a 2015 study showed that our bodies metabolize slower under stress.

The study found that the women participants who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women.

To arrive at this figure, researchers interviewed the women about stressful events prior to giving them a high-fat meal to eat. After finishing the meal, the women wore masks that measured their metabolism by calculating inhaled and exhaled airflow of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Not only did it demonstrate a slow down in their metabolism, but the results also showed that stressed women had higher levels of insulin.

The researchers concluded that the 104 fewer calories burned could add almost 11 pounds per year.

What are the risks of stress and weight gain?

When stress peaks or becomes difficult to manage, more serious, long-term health-related consequences can occur.

Depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, and obesity are all linked to untreated chronic stress.

The risks associated with weight gain include:

Additionally, there’s evidence of a connection between obesity and certain cancers such as pancreatic, esophageal, colon, breast, and kidney cancer.

Finally, your mental health can take a hit. An increase in anxiety or depression can also happen when you unintentionally gain weight.

How is stress-related weight gain diagnosed?

The only way to know if your weight gain is related to stress is to see your doctor.

“That’s because stress-related weight gain can only be diagnosed by taking a careful history and ruling out other things, like low thyroid function, that can also cause weight gain,” explains Seltzer.

Ways to reduce your stress that you can do today

Stress affects all of us at some point. Some people may experience it multiple times a day, while others may only notice it when it begins to interfere with daily tasks.

When you’re feeling stressed, there are several small steps you can take to calm down, including:

  • exercise for 20 to 30 minutes
  • get outdoors and enjoy nature
  • nourish your body with healthy food
  • cultivate social support (aka, phone a friend)
  • eliminate one item on your to-do list
  • take a 10-minute yoga break
  • ask family for help
  • practice mindfulness meditation
  • listen to music
  • read a book
  • go to bed one hour earlier
  • be kind to yourself
  • say “no” to one thing that may add stress
  • spend time with a pet
  • practice 10 minutes of deep breathing
  • ditch the caffeine and alcohol

Treatment for stress-related weight gain

Treating and managing stress-related weight gain starts with a visit to your doctor’s office to discuss your concerns. After a thorough exam, they’ll rule out any other health issues and help you come up with a plan to manage your weight and reduce stress.

In addition to implementing the stress-busting steps listed above, your doctor may recommend working with a Nutritionist that specializes in stress and weight loss. An RD can help you develop a balanced nutrition plan that fits your needs.

Your doctor may also suggest working with a psychologist or therapist to develop strategies to manage your stress.

And finally, your doctor may also talk with you about medication if your stress is related to chronic anxiety or depression.