Have you found that despite everything you’re doing to improve your nutrition and fitness you’re still not reaching your goals? Stress and weight gain are inextricably linked and could be the underlying reason why. Whether the stressor is real or an imagined threat, our bodies will experience the same physical response. Your heart will start racing whether a lion is chasing you or you’re about to miss your flight.
Stress can be triggered when we’ve set expectations that are too high to meet comfortably. Imagine you’re a mom trying to get the kids to soccer practice and you’re running late; you check your daily to-dos and realize you don’t even have time to start the first one. Or, you’ve got a presentation in an hour that you haven’t started preparing for. Whatever the stressor, it’s real to you and your body reacts in turn.
Why we need cortisol?
Cortisol gets a bad rap for being the “fat-storing hormone” but it isn’t all bad, in fact, we need it for survival. In times of stress, cortisol increases blood sugar, raises blood pressure, and suppresses the immune system — boosting your ability to run from danger. Why is this boost useful on a normal, stress-free day? Cortisol levels increase when it’s time to wake up and get going in the morning, then decrease as it gets closer to bedtime.
Say you’re walking along, minding your own business and suddenly that lion from earlier — yes, we know most of you won’t encounter lions in your day-to-day life, but let’s get imaginative here — pops out from the bushes. Your fight or flight system is activated, and your adrenal glands pump out stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and as a result glucose (our primary energy source) is released into our bloodstream, so your brain is prepared to respond in the blink of an eye, to get you the heck out of there!
As the likelihood of running into a lion is slim, those perceived mental and emotional stressors rarely require a physical response, so unused glucose and lingering stress hormones remain in circulation longer. Over time, the repeated stress response takes a toll on your body.
Stress and weight gain
Once the real/perceived threat has subsided, the adrenaline high wears off and cortisol kicks into top gear to replenish your energy supply as fast as possible. Hello, sugar cravings! Your body is designed to store energy as a protective mechanism, particularly after stressful situations — mainly in the form of visceral fat on and around the belly. The downside is that this belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. In addition to weight loss struggles, cortisol serves up a double whammy by slowing down the metabolism.
It’s a case of the what came first, the chicken or the egg, research shows a correlation between weight and cortisol levels but is unclear which one is the cause and which one is the result. It’s most likely a combination of the two. A recent study shows that elevated cortisol levels overtime results in weight gain and obesity, meaning you’ll gain weight due to stress and have a harder time losing it.
“Stressed” is “desserts” spelled backward
Increased cortisol is associated with an increase in blood sugar level, and after this blood sugar spike comes a drop, then sugar cravings — cue the comfort foods. Think about the foods you reach for when you feel stressed. Are ice cream, chocolate, and pizza coming to mind? The foods we crave tend to be highly processed and high in fat, sugar, and salt — all of which are very easy to digest and absorb.
Another reason why comfort foods help us temporarily feel better is that they provide our brains with a boost of the happy neurotransmitter, serotonin. Feeling overwhelmed can make you want to reach for comfort foods or emotionally eat. The bottom line is that stress can impact you both physiologically and psychologically, hence the need for sweets and junk food cravings.
Does stress cause weight gain or loss?
We just discussed the link between stress and weight gain; however, some people experience stress-induced weight-loss. How come? Everyone is different. We all respond to stressful situations in our own way. The increase in adrenaline will initially most likely kill your appetite, but the long-term effects of chronic stress tend to lead to increased appetite and weight gain. If you’re the type who doesn’t want to eat when you’re stressed, this could be related to digestion. One of the effects of stress hormones is to redirect blood away from your gut and to your limbs, which can help you move quickly. You may also have nervous energy and the urge to clean or fidget, which expends extra calories and leads to stress-related weight loss.
Stress and weight management
Just like a car that is driven fast without proper fuel, if you abuse your stress response, you may experience burnout or adrenal fatigue. Read on for our tips to minimize burnout as well as prevent stress and weight gain.
Stress causes us to lay awake at night, and the lack of sleep causes stress, a never-ending cycle. When we lack sleep, we crave quick energy such as sweets. Lack of sleep may also interfere with our appetite hormones, ghrelin, and leptin.
Improve your sleep hygiene:
2 to 4 hours before going to bed:
Avoid strenuous exercise and large meals
1 hour before bed:
Dim lights to increase melatonin
30 minutes before bed:
Put away your electronic devices and screens
Exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress. It decreases cortisol and releases endorphins and other chemicals that boost your mood. Be sure to listen to your body. If you’ve been chronically stressed or over-exercising, take a break. Intense and acute exercise (HIIT, bodybuilding) can temporarily raise cortisol levels.
Grab an exercise buddy to keep you accountable and smiling through your workout
If it’s time to take it easy, take a walk, do yoga, or stretch
When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. Living mindfully can help you clear your mind, make you more aware of what you’re feeling, and curb cravings.
Take 5-10 minutes every day to practice deep breathing, yoga or listening to soothing music
Journal to make sense of feelings and thoughts related to stressful events. This can also help you brainstorm solutions
When things feel overwhelming it can be useful to get an outside perspective; reach out to friends, family, and therapists or counselors to share what you’re going through
Focus on regulating your blood sugar by including nutrients that help support the adrenal glands and your hormones:
Eat a balanced, minimally processed meal or snack, every 3-4 hours
Include fiber, protein, and whole foods
Focus on vitamin B5, magnesium, and vitamin C