Stress and Weight Gain: How they’re related and what to do about it
- May 26, 2021
Uncertainty has been the only constant since the pandemic began and many of us have been feeling the effects of chronic stress. We can all feel that our mental health has been tested, but we don’t all know the very real consequences that feeling this way has on our health.
One of the unfortunate effects of stress can be weight gain and there are many biological and psychological mechanisms to explain it. So if you’ve noticed that the urge to reach for unhealthy food is stronger than ever, there is a reason why.
You can blame quarantine for the lack of weight management and proper exercise. However, stressful situations and your response to stress can be the main culprit that causes you to gain weight. Let’s dive in and learn more about how weight and stress are related, and also some ways you can relieve stress, live healthily and nourish your body.
Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?
You might be wondering if stress can cause weight gain. And, the short answer is yes. While it is not the only factor, stress is one of the many factors that can lead to weight gain, and does so via multiple mechanisms. It can play a role in enhanced appetite, cravings, poor sleep, and decreased motivation for physical activity. (1)
How Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?
Stress-related weight gain results from a cornucopia of factors and the way stress can cause weight gain is via a domino effect. Stress interrupts sleep and increases cortisol levels, which in turn interferes with our resilience to compounding stress.
When this occurs, our decision-making processes are impaired, and we make unhealthy choices when we feel hungry. When we are stressed, our coping mechanisms are compromised, and we return to old eating habits. For others, there is a tendency to satisfy or self-medicate the stress with food. This process is a result of the dopamine rush that comes with eating tasty and sugary foods.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that our adrenal glands produce. It is known as the “stress hormone” because of the circumstances that trigger your body to secrete it.
It seems counterintuitive that our bodies would create a harmful hormone, but it is not always bad. Its function plays a significant role in memory, regulating our blood sugars, and many other physiological functions. However, just like with many other things in life, too much cortisol can have adverse effects.
What Does it Mean to Have Elevated Cortisol?
Cortisol can be released when we are under acute and prolonged stress. When you have elevated cortisol, it can cause many issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure, mood swings, and muscle weaknesses, just to name a few.
Stress Eating Leads to Weight Gain
As briefly mentioned above, some individuals may resort to comfort foods to alleviate stress. And most of the time, people choose unhealthy foods to relieve stress temporarily. These eating behaviours cause a temporary high on dopamine (the feel-good hormone).
Stress can interfere with our ability to sleep. As our mind races and ruminates over all of the concerns leading to stress, it can be hard to fall asleep. With fewer hours of sleep, another hormone, ghrelin, is released into the bloodstream. The less sleep you get, the more ghrelin you produce. Ghrelin is the superhero of hunger. Our hunger drastically increases when this hormone is present. Researchers also hypothesize that sleep interferes with the concentration of another hormone- leptin. Leptin is the hormone that lets the body know that it is not hungry. It is also known as an anorexigenic hormone or appetite suppressant. (2) Therefore, stress causes a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation leaves us with a double whammy. Increased ghrelin (increased hunger), reduced Leptin (ghrelin causes you to be hungry, and there is not enough Leptin to counter it).
Decades of associations with food and stress will create well-worn neurological pathways that result in a subconscious desire for certain foods when feeling certain emotions, particularly when stressed. We build these eating behaviours over time. Often, we are unknowingly taught that food equals comfort, and that message sticks in our minds throughout our life. The term that describes this is “emotional eating” and generally involves unhealthy food.
In an emotional state, it can be even harder to manage stress. That is why high levels of stress can be a trigger for those with an eating disorder.
Effects of Weight Gain
Medically reviewed studies published in numerous health journals show that weight gain can increase the risk for many chronic diseases. Some of these are increased blood pressure, heart disease, breast cancer, and other health conditions. (3), (4), (5)
Blood Pressure and Weight Gain
It has been known for some time that increased visceral adiposity (which is just a fancy way of saying belly fat) increases blood pressure. Just a five-pound increase in abdominal fat can increase your blood pressure. (6)
High blood pressure causes your heart to work harder. If this is happening for long periods, it will lead to an increased risk of heart disease, other cardiovascular diseases, and stroke.
Heart Disease and Weight Gain
Many other studies have consistently shown that an increase in weight is associated with many other cardiovascular risk factors. That increases risks for developing heart failure, heart attack, or sudden cardiac death. (4), (7)
Eating food may help you cope with stress when you are feeling it the most intensively. However, it is necessary to know that it is only making you feel better temporarily. The emotional assistance we get from food does not last long, and ultimately, it will have hazardous side effects on your health in the long run.
How To Mitigate Stress Related Weight Gain
There are many ways one can mitigate or reduce the weight gained as a result of stress.
Reducing stress seems like the most straightforward and logical way to go about increased levels of stress. However, it is not always the most practical or the easiest to do. There are many stressors in life that you cannot eliminate. Things like work, school, relationships, and even the COVID-19 pandemic are examples of things you don’t have full control over.
This problem leads us to the topic of managing stress. There are numerous ways to go about this. Sometimes, managing stress means having a heart-to-heart chat with your family, friends, and healthcare professionals. It can be a helpful way to brainstorm ideas that might work for your situation with someone you can trust.
Different things might work for different people, and this applies to all aspects of life- including stress management. Here are some practices that you can build into your routine that may help you manage and reduce stress.
- Managing stress may come in the form of creating a schedule to manage time. A good work-to-life balance can help you get work-related things done, but also do things for yourself.
- Preparing meals in advance or batch cooking is another time-saving idea you can try. This practise is especially helpful because there is always something healthy in the fridge or freezer ready to eat. That way, you can have healthy meals even when you are too tired to cook.
- You can try shutting off Netflix, phone, or other devices 30 minutes earlier than you typically would. This practice will give you an extra half an hour of sleep. It can help you feel less hungry by producing less of the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin. In the long run, you may consume fewer calories and ultimately lose weight.
There are many directions one can look at when trying to manage stress. To help guide you in the right direction of managing stress, we have discussed some significant starting points. To find out the basics of how simple techniques can make big differences in how you manage stress, keep on reading.
Sometimes, stress can make you feel like you are not getting enough air in your lungs. When you are feeling like you lack air, simply taking a deep breath will give you some stress relief almost instantly.
Deep breathing exercises allow you to bring your stress levels down, even for a few minutes a day. That can be enough to allow you time to regroup and make healthy decisions that will benefit your life.
Importance of Sleep and Exercise for Stress Management
We have heard this a million times from many different sources, and there is a reason why; a preponderance of evidence suggests that adequate sleep and exercise assist in improving stress hormone levels and reducing stress.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Along the lines of deep breathing, there are other ways you can try to manage stress. Meditation gives your mind and body a reprieve from the stresses of everyday life. For example, taking the time every day for breathing exercises is a form of meditation. And, if you consistently focus on mindfulness, meditation, and clearing your thoughts, it can help you manage stress better.
If you want to look more thoroughly at these topics, there are multiple apps, videos on YouTube, and other sources of meditation techniques. These methods of meditation may allow for easy and tailored thought control for almost everyone.
Dealing with mental stress is hard for anyone- no matter what your gender or age is. It can be tough to manage it when things seem like they are out of your control. However, the only thing you can control is yourself. Your actions and choices are yours to make.
It can be easy to fall back into unhealthy eating habits or give in to sugar cravings if you feel stressed and mentally drained. Ultimately, that is how stress can cause weight gain.
For this reason, it is essential to develop techniques on how to manage stress and make healthy choices for your body and mind. Keep in mind that your health and well-being are holistic and that seemingly unrelated lifestyle behaviours will affect your ability to manage stress. Regular exercise, healthy and whole foods, getting quality sleep, maintaining positive relationships, and controlling your use of alcohol and drugs are all lifestyle factors that affect your mental health, and therefore, your ability to manage stress.
Still, sometimes a little help is all you need to guide you in a good direction. If you are looking for someone to help you in your journey to health- we are here for you!
Resources from Clinical Counsellors and Dietitians
Learn how you can better manage stress for your weight and general well-being by booking an appointment with a Registered Clinical Counsellor by email email@example.com or phone +1.888.80.AROGA.
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Bernadette van der Boom-Bebb