Stress can significantly impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight. It can also prevent you from losing weight. Whether it’s the result of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, unhealthy stress-induced behaviors, or a combination of the two, the link between stress and weight gain is glaring.
The Link Between Stress and Cortisol
Researchers have long known that rises in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain. Every time you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. All of this is done to give you the energy you need to escape from a risky situation (also known as the fight or flight response).
Once the threat has subsided, your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar spike drops. This is when cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply quickly.
Cortisol and Sugar Cravings
Cue the sugar cravings. Because sugar supplies your body with the quick energy it thinks it needs, it’s often the first thing you reach for when you’re stressed.
The downside to consuming so much sugar is that your body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations. This energy is stored mainly in the form of abdominal fat, which can be particularly hard to shed. And so the vicious cycle starts: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave more sugar, eat more sugar, gain more weight.
Cortisol and Metabolism
Even if you aren’t eating foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol also slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.
In 2015, researchers from Ohio State University interviewed women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. After finishing the meal, scientists measured the women’s metabolic rates (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and examined their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels.
The researchers found that, on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women.
This could result in an 11-pound weight gain in one year. Stressed women also had higher insulin levels, a hormone that contributes to fat storage.
Stress-Induced Unhealthy Habits
In addition to the hormonal changes related to stress, stress can also drive you to engage in the following unhealthy behaviors, all of which can cause weight gain:
Emotional eating: Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but excess nervous energy can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. You might find that snacking or reaching for a second helping provides you with some temporary relief from your stress but makes healthy weight management more difficult.
Eating “accessible” or fast food: When we are stressed, and not planning, we tend to eat the first thing we see and/or what is readily available and accessible, which is not always the healthiest options. You may also be more likely to drive through a fast-food place, rather than taking the time and mental energy to cook a balanced, healthy meal.
Exercising less: With all the demands on your schedule, exercising may be one of the last things on your to-do list. If so, you’re not alone. A long commute and hours spent sitting behind a desk can leave little opportunity for physical activity.
Skipping meals: When you are juggling a dozen things at once, eating a healthy meal can drop down in the list of priorities. You might find yourself skipping breakfast because you’re running late or not eating lunch because there’s just too much on your to-do list.
Sleeping less: Many people report trouble sleeping when they’re stressed. And research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism. Feeling overtired can also reduce willpower and contribute to unhealthy eating habits.
How to Break the Cycle of Stress and Weight Gain
When you’re stressed out, healthy behaviors likely eating properly and exercising regularly can easily fall by the wayside. Maintaining a schedule and/or routine can help make these healthy behaviors a habit and combat stress-related weight changes. Here are a few strategies that can help you break the cycle of stress and weight gain:
Make exercise a priority. Exercising is a critical component of stress reduction and weight management. It can help you address both issues simultaneously, so it’s essential for warding off stress-related weight gain. Whether you go for a walk during your lunch break or hit the gym after work, incorporate regular exercise into your routine.
Eat healthier comfort foods. You don’t need carbs or fats to make you feel better. One of the few studies testing the effectiveness of comfort foods in improving mood found that eating relatively healthier comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn, is just as likely to boost a negative mood as “unhealthy” foods.6 Making sure your pantry is stocked with these types of foods will make it easier to grab a healthier option during times of high stress.
Practice mindful eating. Focusing on what you’re eating—without distractions—may help lower stress, promote weight loss, and prevent weight gain. One study found that overweight women who had mindfulness-based stress and nutrition training were better able to avoid emotional eating, and had lower stress levels, which led to less belly fat over time.7
Next time you eat a meal, try enjoying it without the distraction of your phone or the TV.
Keep a food journal. Paying attention to your eating habits can help you gain control over your food consumption. A 2011 review of studies that examined the link between self-monitoring and weight loss found that those who kept a food journal were more likely to manage their weight than those who didn’t.8 So whether you use an app to track your food intake or you write everything in a food diary, being more mindful of what you put in your mouth could improve your eating habits.
Drink more water. It’s easy to confuse thirst for hunger. But confusing these two cravings can lead you to eat more calories than your body needs, prompting weight gain. It’s much easier to identify hunger after you’ve eliminated any mild dehydration. If it’s only been a couple of hours since you’ve eaten and you feel hungry, try drinking some water first. If you still feel hungry, then grab a snack.
Incorporate stress-relief strategies into your daily life. Whether you enjoy yoga or you find solace in reading a good book, try adding simple stress relievers like taking a deep breath, listening to music, or going on a walk into your daily routine. Doing so can reduce your cortisol levels, helping you manage your weight.