How does stress lead to weight gain?

Apr 06, 2022
How does stress lead to weight gain?

Stress can take a toll on physical, emotional, and mental health and can prevent you from losing weight and make it hard to maintain a healthy weight.  Whether it is because of chronically high cortisol levels, stress eating behaviors, or a combination, the link between stress and weight is strong. 

We have known for a long time that cortisol can lead to weight gain.  Every time you are stressed, your adrenal glands pump out the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and glucose is released into your bloodstream.  This is the protective “fight of flight” response that can help you escape in an emergency.  However, when the threat goes away, even though adrenaline decreases and glucose drops, often you are left with sugar cravings. 

Even when you are eating healthy foods, cortisol can slow down your metabolism by over 100kcal per day.  It is believed that metabolism decreases with chronic cortisol production, and stress also leads to elevated insulin levels, which can contribute to increased fat storage.  This chronic stress can lead to:

  • An increase in insulin resistance,
  • An increase in blood pressure,
  • An increase in food craving,
  • An increase in abdominal fat,
  • An increase systemic inflammation,
  • A possible decrease in antibody producing cells.

In addition to cortisol impacting hunger, metabolism, and insulin, stress can drive people to follow unhealthy eating behaviors.  Some behaviors that tend to increase with stress include emotional eating (buffering), sleeping less, moving less, or grabbing quick or fast foods.

When you are feeling stressed, maintaining a healthy routine matters more than ever.  Some solutions include:

  • Preplanning nourishing food and keeping a food journal,
  • Paying attention to hunger,
  • Making movement and exercise a priority,
  • Prioritize sleep,
  • Find ways to de-stress, e.g., get outside, talk a walk, meditate, listen to music, or talk to a loved one,
  • Drink more water,
  • Learn how to “allow” urges and other emotions,
  • Work with your doctor, therapist, or coach.

Chronic stress can lead to weight gain, but there are good ways to limit daily stressors to help manage the impact on weight. Stress is a normal part of life, but it is worth keeping your stress in check. Consider writing a list of ways that you can unwind and destress and make sure you are prioritizing these things in your life and notice if and when it may be impacting your weight.

DISCLAIMER: Sarah Smith MD is a medical doctor, but she is not your doctor, and she is not offering medical advice on this website. If you are in need of professional advice or medical care, you must seek out the services of your own doctor or health care professional.