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Stress and Weight Gain: Is There a Connection?

  • 6 min read

by Matt Weik

Whether we are talking about individuals or whole communities, stress changes our behaviors. They can cause us to turn to comfort eating, drinking, smoking, and other unhealthy habits that can lead to weight gain.

Stress is bad for your health and has the potential to cause several physical and psychological issues. For example, it may lead to an upset stomach or heartburn, lead to knots in the upper back that causes a stiff neck, cause or worsen the symptoms of insomnia and depression, impair your immune functioning, and make you feel generally unwell. Honestly, the list can go on and on. Stress is a nasty thing and, when not under control, can be extremely damaging to your weight and overall health.

In this article, we will look at the correlation between stress and weight gain, along with some things you can do to better manage them.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. If you are suffering from an illness, disease, or simply haven’t been feeling like yourself, speak to a medically trained professional and get their expert opinion and diagnosis.

The Function of Cortisol in the Body

Stress is a natural, normal part of our life. When we feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones. These hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart starts to beat faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and our senses become sharper.

These physical changes enhance our strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and heighten your focus — preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

Once the threat is gone, our body is meant to return to a calm and balanced state. But when the stress response doesn’t shut off, and these stress levels stay risen far longer than is needed for survival, it can take a heavy toll on your health, both physically and emotionally.

Cortisol has a direct relationship with weight gain because it regulates appetite and fat distribution throughout the body. The main problem comes when cortisol levels exceed what is naturally intended for the body’s stress response system. During times of high-stress or chronic stress conditions (such as taking care of an elderly parent or being in a demanding job), this physiological response can cause cortisol levels to remain elevated for long periods of time. This can lead to cravings for unhealthy foods that are high in sugar and fat, which ultimately may cause unwanted weight gain.

What Are Some Stress-induced Unhealthy Habits?

Stress may not be the most important factor in causing weight gain, but it does play a role. Stress causes people to engage in unhealthy habits, such as:

1.      Eating High-Calorie, Low-Nutrition Foods

Stress may cause you to crave sweets and other comfort foods that are high in fat and sugar. This can lead to weight gain.

2.      Drinking Alcohol or Smoking

When you’re under stress, these unhealthy habits may seem like a good way to relax or cope with life’s challenges. However, these behaviors can add calories and contribute to weight gain.

3.      Being Less Physically Active

When you’re under stress, you may feel too tired to exercise or may avoid physical activity for other reasons. But regular physical activity is an important component of stress management and overall health. If you want to prevent weight gain during stressful times, it’s crucial that you remain physically active.

4.      Getting Minimal Sleep

Stress can disrupt your sleep quality and quantity, which can promote weight gain by increasing hunger and cravings for unhealthy foods as well as by decreasing energy levels and motivation for exercise.

How to Break the Cycle and Stop Gaining Weight Due to Stress?

Here are a few things you can do to break the cycle and start living a healthy life.

1.      Exercise Regularly

The best way to alleviate stress is to exercise on a regular basis. Exercise releases endorphins, which are “feel-good” hormones that act as natural painkillers and improve your mood. You don’t have to join a gym or hire a personal trainer — just set aside at least 20 minutes every day to get your heart rate up with any activity that gets you moving, such as walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling.

The key is to pick something you enjoy doing so that you will remain committed to doing it throughout the week. Strive for around 150 minutes of exercise each week. This may seem like a lot, but if you exercise five days a week for 30 minutes, you can easily hit the recommended amount of weekly exercise to improve health and better manage your weight.

2.      Eat Comfort Foods, but in Moderation

They’re called comfort foods for a reason. A little bit of what you’re craving might be soothing but overdoing it will only add more stress to your life later on when you step on the scale (and even before if you feel guilty about gorging). Instead of giving up sweets or other treats, allow yourself small amounts and make sure they’re part of a healthy diet.

3.      Keep Yourself Hydrated

When you’re stressed, you tend to drink less water (and more sugary beverages or alcohol). But dehydration can worsen feelings of anxiety and make your body crave sugary and fatty foods. If you want to stop gaining weight from stress, focus on drinking at least eight glasses of water per day. Even better, keep a water bottle by your side at all times and sip on it regularly throughout the day.

4.      Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough rest allows your body time to recover from stressful events and rebuild its supplies of important hormones and nutrients. Chronic sleep deprivation may also increase the risk of weight gain by disrupting the balance of certain hormones that control hunger and fullness signals in the brain, including ghrelin and leptin.

Try to set a sleep schedule and stick to it. Refrain from lying in bed scrolling through your social media feed. Turn off all electronics, make the room quiet and dark, and turn down the temperature to put it at a more ideal range to help your body ease to sleep. It is recommended that you get a minimum of seven hours of quality sleep each night. In order to do this, a sleep schedule may prove to be worthwhile.