Stress is a normal part of life. Everyone experiences stress, and it’s not always a bad thing. Stress can motivate you to get that promotion at work or run the last mile of a marathon.
But when stress becomes constant, it may lead to health issues like weight gain or make existing problems worse.
Your body responds to stress as if it’s a threat to your survival.
When you’re stressed, your body goes through a lot of changes — it’s preparing to go into “fight or flight” mode. Your brain perceives stress as a physical threat to survival, so it tells the body to release stress hormones such as cortisol (a hormone that helps your body manage stress). These hormones raise blood pressure and blood sugar levels and slow down digestion, which can lead to weight gain in certain areas of the body.
Stress increases cortisol
Stress and weight gain are linked in a few different ways. When you’re exposed to stressful situations, your adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is often called the stress hormone because it’s released in response to a perceived threat.
This is part of the fight-or-flight response, which helped our ancestors survive dangerous situations by increasing energy levels, heightening alertness and enhancing circulation. But today, most of our stressors aren’t life threatening; they’re things like work deadlines or relationship challenges – not immediate dangers that need to be handled with increased energy levels or increased blood flow. If you experience chronic stress — meaning long-term exposure to stress hormones like cortisol — it takes its toll on your body over time. This can lead to many health issues, including weight gain.
Stress promotes unhealthy habits
Stress can make it harder for you to resist the urge to binge eat or pick up unhealthy foods, studies have found. When your body is under stress, it releases the hormone cortisol, which increases your appetite and cravings for food high in fat and sugar. These foods trigger a release of hormones that temporarily soothe your stress response system.
One study, published in the journal Appetite, found that people who are stressed are more likely to reach for comfort foods like doughnuts than a healthy snack like an apple. Another study found that chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of obesity. This risk was highest among young adult women ages 18–25 years old and men over 50 years old.
Prolonged stress can lead to emotional eating.
In this state, you are more likely to turn to high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods. And because cortisol suppresses your appetite, you may not feel full after eating these foods and may end up consuming more calories than you need. Similarly, if stress triggers a loss of appetite for a prolonged period of time, your body will take its energy from the lean muscle instead of fat reserves. Then when the stressful situation is over and you start eating again, your body will store this energy as fat rather than use it for fuel.
Cortisol also raises blood sugar levels to provide extra fuel for the muscles should we need to fight or run away. However, if we are stressed sitting at our desks or staring at computer screens (rather than running from predators), this can cause blood sugar levels to remain too high for too long which can contribute to weight gain. If your blood sugar remains too high for a prolonged period of time, your body’s cells stop responding properly and become insulin resistant – resulting in type 2 diabetes.
Binge eating can lead to weight gain.
Binge eating is a common problem, but it’s one that can lead to other emotional eating behaviors. Here are some of the ways that bingeing can affect your stress levels:
- Binge eating is a coping mechanism. A lot of people use food to cope with stress, and many times these people wind up bingeing on junk food as a way to avoid their feelings about what’s going on in their lives.
- Binge eating is more common than you might think. People who are stressed or depressed often turn to food for comfort, and this kind of emotional eating can lead to weight gain over time. This happens because when we eat too much sugar or fat, our bodies produce insulin which causes blood sugar levels to drop dramatically (hypoglycemia). When this happens repeatedly throughout the day, it leads to binge eating episodes where we consume large amounts of calories at once. These calorie-dense foods cause us feel sluggish and lethargic afterward which affects our productivity levels in the long term
Your body becomes used to living in a state of stress.
To keep up with this constant state of stress, your body releases the hormones epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol, which can give you a jolt of energy. Your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. This is all part of the fight-or-flight response, in which your body prepares for a threat—whether that threat is fighting off an attacker or running away from a tiger.
In addition to giving you the energy boost you need to handle tension, this mechanism also increases blood flow to muscles, boosts immunity and slows down bodily processes that aren’t necessary during survival mode (like digestion). This means that when you’re stressed out, less of what you eat gets stored as fat because your digestive system simply doesn’t have time to process it properly.
All these reactions are meant to be temporary responses to potentially life-threatening situations. But if they persist over long periods of time, they can make it difficult for people who are under stress to lose weight. That’s because once your body becomes accustomed to living in a state of stress, it’s harder for it to return to its normal resting state—and even something as simple as watching TV on the couch may seem stressful by comparison. Stress can also lead people to overeat when they aren’t actually hungry at all. And even though eating may make them feel better in the short term (especially if they choose high-fat or high-carb foods), it usually just leads to more guilt about weight gain and more stress about how their bodies look.
Chronic stress can change the way you process sugar.
Sugar must be processed by the body before it can be used as fuel. When you eat sugar, your body breaks it down into glucose, its simplest form. Glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to cells throughout your body. As glucose enters your cells, insulin is secreted by your pancreas to aid in its absorption. Insulin also regulates how much sugar is stored in your fat cells.
Chronic stress changes how your body stores sugar. Feeling stressed triggers a spike in cortisol levels (a stress hormone). Elevated cortisol can cause an increase in appetite, leading you to overeat—especially high-sugar foods like ice cream and candy bars. Cortisol also affects insulin production—which normally helps stabilize blood sugar levels—by causing insulin resistance, prompting the pancreas to release more insulin than required to help lower blood sugar levels after a meal or snack containing carbohydrates. Since the amount of stored sugar (glycogen) in the liver and muscles is limited, excess glucose from frequent carbohydrate intake over long periods of time will be stored as fat rather than being converted into glycogen for energy use.
Stress may trigger inflammation.
The body’s natural reaction to stress is inflammation. Inflammation is a process that helps the body heal. It’s part of the immune response, which protects you from foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. It can also help heal injuries. But research suggests that prolonged stress can trigger chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions.
Inflammation may also contribute to insulin resistance and weight gain in other ways. For instance, inflammatory cytokines (inflammatory chemicals) cause disruptions in the body’s metabolism and affect hormones that regulate appetite and food intake — leading to overeating and higher calorie consumption. High levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), for example, are associated with increased hunger, cravings for high-fat foods and weight gain. Inflammation may also lead to high blood pressure, which contributes to insulin resistance by damaging blood vessels throughout the body — including those in your kidneys, heart and brain
Inflammation may lead to high blood pressure and insulin resistance.
When inflammation is acute, it’s a helpful tool our bodies use to heal. The inflammatory response occurs when the body recognizes something foreign and needs to fight that intruder—it’s part of your immune system’s normal reaction to fighting off infections, injuries, or short-term stressors.
When inflammation becomes chronic, however, it can actually contribute to disease over time. Chronic inflammation is linked with many health problems like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and dementia. In particular, people who experience chronic stress may have a heightened inflammatory response as compared to those who are not chronically stressed out—and this may be connected with weight gain in some individuals.
Insulin resistance can lead to metabolic syndrome, which increases your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
One possible reason? Insulin resistance.
Insulin is the hormone that our bodies produce to help regulate blood sugar. When we eat food, it’s broken down into glucose (a form of sugar). Glucose enters our bloodstream and insulin helps bring that glucose into the cells throughout our body.2
Stress can lead to an increase in cortisol, which can eventually cause insulin resistance.4 This can also contribute to metabolic syndrome (also called Syndrome X), which increases your risk for heart disease and diabetes.[justification]https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/guide/insulin-resistance#1[/justification]
Metabolic syndrome puts you at risk of weight gain, especially around your waistline.
Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that raises your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. While stress alone isn’t responsible for this cluster of conditions, it might increase your chances of developing metabolic syndrome in certain situations.
You’re at greater risk if you have [type 2 diabetes](http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/guide/diabetes-overview-symptoms) or insulin resistance, as well as high blood sugar, excess belly fat or high blood pressure — all factors linked to stress and weight gain.
You can also check your body mass index (BMI) to see if you are overweight or obese; however, BMI doesn’t specifically measure abdominal fat so it’s not the most accurate indicator of those at risk for metabolic syndrome. If you’re concerned about the shape of your waistline, the National Institutes of Health offers guidelines on how to measure yourself for an accurate readout: Stand up straight and lift your arms out from your sides until they reach horizontal. Use a tape measure to record the distance from one side around to the other at navel level (also known as midsection). A measurement over 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men indicates that you’re at higher than average risk for metabolic syndrome because this amount of belly fat can put extra pressure on internal organs like the liver and pancreas.
When the body is stressed, it releases cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that affects your appetite.
So how exactly does stress trigger hunger? It involves the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released in response to stress. Also referred to as “the fight-or-flight hormone,” it prepares your body for physical exertion, which means it increases your appetite.
It also affects the hunger center of your brain, which is called the hypothalamus. Cortisol can make you feel hungry even when you don’t need energy—and often leads to overeating or craving unhealthy foods like high-fat or sugary snacks.
Stress causes weight gain in more ways than one.
The relationship between stress and weight gain is complicated. But there seems to be a few consistent connections. When we are stressed, our bodies release hormones like cortisol and insulin, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits and changes in metabolism. Stress may also encourage us to eat more high-fat, high-sugar “comfort foods” than we might otherwise choose. Finally, a diet rich in processed foods and sugar can itself increase inflammation throughout the body—and inflammation has been linked to obesity and metabolic disease.
Inflammation itself is connected with metabolic syndrome and increased belly fat, as well as an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, autoimmune diseases and more.
Ways to kick stress to the curb
There are a couple of ways you can go about managing your stress levels in order to keep cortisol and weight gain at bay. The first is by getting plenty of exercise, especially cardio. While it’s true that strength training can help you build muscle, it won’t have the same effect on your heart rate. To truly reduce cortisol levels, focus on fast-paced activities like running, swimming or cycling for at least 20 minutes a day.
Eating healthy is another great way to beat stress and maintain a healthy weight! When your body is under stress, it produces more sugar in an attempt to give you energy for fight-or-flight responses. Consuming too much sugar without enough protein can cause spikes in blood sugar that make you feel sluggish or even sick. Eating whole foods with lots of natural nutrients will minimize those ups and downs while reducing stress levels.
Getting enough sleep is also important when it comes to keeping cortisol balanced and maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep deprivation causes the body to produce more cortisol which leads to increased hunger and cravings for unhealthy foods high in carbohydrates and fats (a vicious cycle). It also impairs brain function which hinders decision making abilities when temptation arises—leading people to opt for less nutritious food options despite their best intentions as they reach for an easy fix instead of making healthier choices.