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  • Aliza Beer

Is Stress Causing Your Weight Gain?

We all experience stress at some point or another in our lives. While we can agree that feeling stressed is never pleasant, we might not realize that it may actually poorly affect our health as well. Headaches, tension, anxiety, depression are just some of the hallmark consequences of stress but research has confirmed that weight gain is yet another powerful result of stress. Though some may find that stress may reduce their appetite initially, long term or chronic stress actually boosts your hunger, causes overeating, and predisposes you to excess weight gain.

Why does this happen? We have physiology to thank for this reaction to stress, specifically our “fight or flight” response. When we are in a stressful situation or are feeling chronic stress, a hormone known as cortisol, also called the “stress hormone,” is released and hangs around in our body. This hormone interprets your feelings of stress to mean that your body is going through a hardship and prepares for starvation mode. Therefore, your body slowly begins to store fat more efficiently in order to protect your body. In addition to storing excess fat (particularly belly fat), cortisol boosts your appetite and drives cravings for less healthy “junk food.” This is also linked to another famous hormone, known as insulin. High cortisol levels in the blood lead to higher than normal insulin levels, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. When insulin levels are higher than normal, our blood sugar drops. This generally causes us to crave sugary, fatty foods and is why during stressful times the cravings we have for “junk food” often rises. This explains why it is way more common to find yourself reaching for a box of cookies when you are in a stressful situation as opposed to a healthier alternative!

Lastly, stress tends to slow down your metabolism. This makes it more difficult to burn calories and therefore you are more likely to gain weight. The combination of all of these effects of stress on our bodies makes it very likely, if not unavoidable, to gain weight during stressful times.

So how do we combat this? Of course, dealing with stress in a healthy way and alleviating the anxiety is key. Unfortunately, that is not always so simple. However, there are other ways to control weight gain during stressful times. Here are three key tips to help keep your weight under control during stressful times:

1] Make sure to exercise: Maintaining a healthy exercise regimen during stressful times may be hard for some, but the benefits are well worth it. Exercise is always a great way to burn additional calories and prevent excess weight gain, thus making it even more ideal during a stressful time when your body is encouraged to put on extra pounds. Additionally, exercise releases hormones that make you feel good. These hormones can help combat the stress hormones, thus reducing anxiety. Furthermore, exercise boosts your metabolism, which combats the sluggish effect that cortisol has on your metabolism.

2] Get enough sleep: Often when we feel stressed we tend to notice the effects in our sleeping habits. It is all too common for people to face restless nights during stressful times. However, this just raises our stress levels, as the body interprets a lack of sleep to mean that the body is in a more stressful situation! While our cortisol levels continue to skyrocket, another hormone known as ghrelin is also increased in our blood from lack of sleep. Ghrelin is the hormone responsible for making you feel hungry. This combination is likely to lead to overeating. Making sure to get enough sleep is key to keeping these hormones balanced. This may be easier said than done during a stressful time where a good nights sleep seems to be impossible but reducing caffeine, such as in chocolate, tea, ice cream, and coffee are some ways to help relax your body and hopefully ease you into restful nights. Reading a book, and avoiding electronics such as your smart phone or laptop in the bedroom are other ways to promote peaceful nights. Taking a hot bath or shower before bed is yet another good tool that will bring on relaxation and sleep.

3] Keep your plate colorful: A varied plate, filled with fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains are another way to help avoid weight gain when under stress. Whole grains, plenty of protein, and a large plate of vegetables keep you full longer, which will likely keep the binge-eating on less healthy options at bay. Not only do these options keep you full longer, they are also full of nutrients, such as essential vitamins and minerals. Studies have found that adequate amounts of certain vitamins and minerals, specifically the B-vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium are linked to lowering cortisol levels in the blood. Eggs, fish, meat, whole grains and dairy are great ways of taking in enough B-vitamins. Citrus fruit, such as strawberries and grapefruit are full of vitamin C. Green leafy vegetables and nuts and beans are great sources of magnesium while salmon and dairy foods are filled with calcium.

Stress is an inevitable part of our lives. However, we do not want stress to interfere with our lives and our health more than it needs to. Few people associate stress with weight gain but in fact, weight gain is physiologically linked to stress! Understanding that stress and anxiety can lead to weight gain and the different ways in which it causes the number on the scale to rise are essential to developing the right tools to combat this problem.

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