Is Stress Making You Gain Weight?

stressed woman

You know that stress is an epidemic of the time and that more folks are coping with high-stress levels than ever before, but do you know about the impact that chronic stress can have on your weight?

You may have noticed what happens with your energy, cravings, mood, food, and sleep when you are stressed, but you may not have realized that your level of stress combined with how you cope with your stress has a biochemical effect on these various aspects of your heath. Weight gain and stress, unfortunately, go together for a lot of people.

How Do Your Eating Habits Change When You’re Stressed?

Maybe you reach for a tub of ice cream after a hard day at the office, or you swing by the gas station for some gummy bears after a bad first date. You may be the mom who eats cupcakes in her car after a stressful morning of getting the kids to school or the daughter who hides chips under her bed until no one is home. 

You may find yourself not sleeping well, thinking about your bank account balance, or your children off at college, or you may be stressed out supporting a loved one through a health crisis, leaving hardly a moment for you to get a good meal into your day.

Most people can attest to the impact that stress can have on your life, diet, ability to rest well, along with the general challenge stress brings to everything when you are in the thick of it. Stress can be all-consuming, sneaky, persistent, habitual, and even your “normal.”

While it is impossible, as humans, to live a completely stress-free life, there are some tips and tricks you can incorporate into your days, so that you are not the example of the oh-so-common stress weight gain (as well as other metabolic imbalances, health issues, and hardship).

Meet Your Stress Hormones

Stress can be defined as a situation that disturbs “the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment.” When you come across a stressful situation (perceived or real) in your life, your body undergoes an array of reactions on a biochemical level. Many of these affect your eating habits, weight, and sleep. Hormonally, there are some important heavy hitters to understand.

Cortisol

Cortisol takes center stage as far as stress hormones go. Cortisol is designed to be released during times of short-term stress where it then provides energy to cope with the stress-provoking stimuli. Where things go wrong for many folks (in the world of optimal health) is the epidemic of chronic stress, which then translates into chronically high cortisol levels, which can wreak havoc on your body. For example, cortisol in healthy amounts is an anti-inflammatory for the body, but when levels are chronically elevated, cortisol becomes inflammatory. Similarly, when cortisol is chronically high, the body tends to hold on to extra pounds.

Adrenaline

Another important hormone is adrenaline. Adrenaline (also known as noradrenaline) is released for acute stress. Part of the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight side of the autonomic nervous system) adrenaline stimulates an acute physical response such as dilatation of pupils and bronchioles, increased heart rate, constricted blood vessels, and a slowed digestion so the individual is hyper-focused and able to deal with the stress at hand.

While cortisol and adrenaline both protect the body stimulating a fight-or-flight response, adrenaline is faster acting than cortisol. Studies show that adrenaline may suppress appetite during stress, whereas cortisol may stimulate appetite during recovery from stress. Consequently, those under chronic stress tend to eat more while also craving consumption hyper-palatable energy-dense foods such as sugar and fat.

Oxytocin

You may know oxytocin, the anti-stress hormone, promotes connection, bonding, and closeness to keep you calm (unlike cortisol that keeps you stressed). You would most likely prefer your oxytocin to be higher than your cortisol to avoid those chronic states of stress with higher levels of depression and/or anxiety.

The good news is that you can create more oxytocin in your life. Laugher, nature, orgasm, dark chocolate, creativity, dance, music, cuddling, puppies, socializing, friendship, sharing your feelings, and gratitude are all simple and user-friendly ways to boost your oxytocin. Therefore, higher levels of oxytocin can balance out your stress hormones and leave you feeling better, craving less, and enjoying life more.

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Stress and Eating

When you feel stress, do you reach for the cupcakes, cookies, and cakes? Some people do. Others prefer more of a salty and crunchy taste, like chips or fries, while some folks feel too nauseated to eat at all.

There is a whole spectrum of craving (including not craving) but you may notice, depending on what is stressing you out and how extreme the situation, your relationship with food and cravings can change.

There are three primary ways stress and eating can affect your body weight.

  • Emotional eating: Chronic stress is often associated with anxiety, depression, and even anger. While food is generally not the answer to combatting stress, often, if stress persists, an easy and effective way to find short-term comfort is found with emotional eating and/or excessive snacking
  • Food cravings: When you get stressed, do you crave certain foods? If your answer is yes, then this data might shed some light on why you crave what you crave when you crave it. When cortisol is secreted, due to more of a long-term stress pattern, a phenomenon called the orexigenic response can arise. This is the response to the cortisol that leads to more food cravings (from a biochemical level). Often, the orexigenic response may manifest as craving highly palatable foods in your diet, especially sweets. This response can also surely lead to weight gain and an overall increase in BMI (body mass index).
  • Loss of appetite: Stress, particularly the short-term fight-or-flight type of stress that involves adrenaline, most often shuts down your appetite. When you are in a temporary fight-or-flight state, eating gets put on hold in the body, so you can effectively deal with the emergency at hand. While much of your stress is not as severe as you perceive (as compared to the fight-or-flight response when being chased by a grizzly bear) it can feel debilitating and urgent, hence finding yourself in fight-or-flight.

This explains while some folks refrain from food when under stress and others turn toward food when under stress. Where do you most often fall in the spectrum?

Ways to Handle Stress

Breathe

Slow, deep breaths relieve high-stress levels and activate the parasympathetic (calming) side of your nervous system. Breathing during snack or mealtime allows you to feel calmer, to listen to your body, feel your hunger and satiation cues more clearly, and stay the observer in your eating experience to best avoid stress eating gone wild.

Sense

Your senses occur only in the present. Therefore, tracking your senses while you eat can help you stay present in each moment during mealtime. Attuning to your senses also elevates the pleasure you experience. Pleasure activates your oxytocin and helps to balance your cravings and your appetite.

Stress and Sleep

Busy mind, restlessness, anxiety, tense muscles, nightmares, and a racing heart are symptoms most people have experienced when trying to get a good night’s sleep during a stressful time. Most would agree, it is not fun. The nights can drag on, and the first ray of sunlight can feel like you survived a dark night of the soul.

While stress is not conducive to a relaxing and peaceful night of sleep, there is more to the story that you should know when it comes to sleep and your weight. Lack of sleep alters your hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin). Leptin is the hormone that suppresses your appetite. Leptin decreases with sleep deprivation leaving you more likely to be craving comfort food the next day. Ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Ghrelin increases with lack of sleep. You can see here how it is easy to consume more food after a tough night of sleep.

Lack of sleep (and the cascade of hunger hormone shifts) could contribute to increased appetite and possibly explain increased weight gain for some individuals with higher stress and lower duration of sleep.

Tips to Ease Stress Before Bedtime

While stress can feel like an impossible problem to fix, especially when it comes to your sleep, try some of these user-friendly tips and see if they may just take the edge off of your stress level so you can peacefully sink in between the sheets.

  • Meditate before bed: Meditation has been shown to relax the nervous system and quell symptoms of stress.
  • Drink warm chamomile tea to ease your nervous system: Herbs such as chamomile have a calming effect and may also help with a more restful night of sleep.
  • Take a warm bath: By warming up the body temperature in a hot bath, your body relaxes more easily, leading to a more relaxed bedtime.
  • Use herbal supplements and natural remedies such as melatonin, tart cherry, L-tryptophan, or valerian: Research shows natural medicine can help with deeper and longer sleep.
  • Diffuse essential oil of lavender in your room: Aromatherapy can set the tone for more relaxation and rest.
  • Avoid electronics and screen time 30 minutes before bed: More time off of your screen has been shown to lend to a better night of sleep.

Breaking the Negative Stress Cycle

If you are suffering from stress-related weight gain, the best thing you can do is try to handle those stressful times with as much knowledge, awareness, gentleness, and patience as you can. There are some effective stress management strategies to explore here today, to avoid potential weight gain, but also to break the vicious cycle of stress and uplift your quality of life.

  • Find a healthy outlet for your stress: Regular exercise, time in nature, community, and spirituality can help you through hard times.
  • Mindful eating: When you are stressed, pay attention to what you eat; eat it slowly and mindfully.
  • Amplify the good in your life: Increase your pleasure and oxytocin with regular physical activity that uplifts your spirits.
  • Get support: Talk to a friend, a family member, or a professional.
  • Journal: Sort out some of your feelings through personal reflection and journaling. Dealing with your stressors head-on by journaling can help you unload them off your shoulders.

Weight gain is not a conclusion that has to come with every stressful situation. Your body chemistry may not even lean in a weight-gain direction (based on the relationship between adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin). Regardless, handling any stressful situation the best you can (with the above knowledge and stress management tips in your back pocket) may help you navigate some of the most common automatic responses to stress that could lead to weight gain. Ultimately, you don’t have control of what stress life throws at you, but you do have the power within your stress response that can be honed and sculpted over time to create a healthier body and life.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.


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About the Author
SueVanRaes

Sue Van Raes

Functional nutritionist and Food Psychology Specialist
Sue Van Raes is a functional nutritionist, food psychology specialist, and author in Boulder Co. As founder of Boulder Nutrition , Sue helps people navigate how to make sustainable changes in their health and make peace with their plate. Sue uses a combination of science-based testing, clinical nutrition, holistic nutrition, natural medicine, functional medicine, homeopathy, and metabolic typing to guide folks in experiencing clarity, vitality, and body-positive living. She works with clients locally, remotely, online, and on her local and international health and yoga retreats....Read more