Have you heard of those people that lose weight when they’re stressed? They are out there, but most of us don’t turn away from food unless we’re in an acute state of stress. Instead, we turn toward it.
Stress makes us feel uncomfortable and in our modern world, we can rarely move away from it quickly. While our ancestors would feel stressed and take action to move away from it - such as the sight of a large predator on the horizon - we usually have to sit in it. A stressful week at your job? You can’t exactly walk away.
If you’re familiar with stress, you’re likely also struggling with maintaining a healthy weight or, at the very least, achieving your weight loss goals. Stress and weight gain are strongly linked, and it’s not just down to your psychology.
Here are 3 reasons why we often gain weight when we’re stressed:
3 Reasons for the Link Between Stress & Weight Gain
1) Stress Often Encourages Poor Eating Habits
Let’s start with the one we’ve likely all figured out for ourselves - the link between stress and poor eating habits and nutritional decisions. When we’re stressed, we’re often rushing from one thing to the next and so a problem that’s solved as easily as hunger is done so in the fastest way possible - by heading to the nearest cupboard for a snack, going through a drive-through, or heading into the convenience store.
We typically opt for whatever option is the easiest and quickest - which is usually something full of sugar and calories that comes in a package. We feel like we need the energy to keep going, so we reach for a candy bar or head through the drive-through at McDonald’s.
If we’re on a new diet plan, we often feel so stressed that we don’t have the capacity to pause and think about what we’re going to eat. It slows us down, and those habits are not yet ingrained enough that we can find convenient healthy food - especially if we have habitually opted for something high in sugar and fat that gives us a quick hit of dopamine, which is the reward neurohormone.
Secondly, it’s this hit of dopamine for the reward that we often rely on when we feel down. If we feel stressed or having a tough time, we’re much more likely to reward ourselves with something that’s actually bad for us because we’re lacking in sources of dopamine from other areas of our life.
2) Stress Increases Cortisol Production
Now we’ve covered how our brains interact with food when we’re stressed, let’s look at what’s going on chemically in the brain and elsewhere in the body. First up is cortisol.
Cortisol is often known as the stress hormone; it’s the hormone that is released when we feel stressed and anxious, and it keeps our adrenaline levels high. It does this by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. This has been the natural flight or fight response that has kept our species alive for so long.
In the modern era our stressors still initiate this flight or fight response. The hormone cortisol provides the body with glucose to operate- this is done by tapping into our protein stores in muscles. The energy gained from this process helps us get through the stressful situation.
Depending on how long the stressful situation is, this cortisol can stay present in our systems for days, weeks, or even months in extreme cases.
3) Stress Increases Blood Sugar Levels
As we just learned, cortisol essentially helps you stay in fight or flight mode - a mode in which your body needs to be ready for anything at any time.
Long term elevation of cortisol leads to a consistent production of glucose, and increased blood sugar in our bodies.
If the body is constantly stressed and bombarded with high glucose, more insulin is eventually required to help stabilize our glucose levels. Eventually, if the stress is not appropriately managed this process can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your cells stop responding properly to insulin and don’t take up glucose from your bloodstream. Because the glucose produced isn’t being used, the body decides to store it for later use as fat. This of course increases weight and makes it harder to see progress.
You have the power to change things
Weight gain is just one of the negative effects of long-term stress. Chronic stress can cause headaches, migraines, TMJ (jaw clenching), digestive problems, muscular pain, memory impairment, sleep disruption, anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, and even puts you at higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
It’s so important for your health to learn ways to manage stress and look for support when you need it. Our high-paced society and societal (and self-imposed) expectations make us feel that we should be superhuman and do and be all things all the time.
The truth is, we all have a limited-sized plate and can only take on so much at one time - make sure you learn how to rest, relax, get exercise, and work self-care into your daily routine as a priority, not an afterthought. You may need to make a change or take something off your plate to improve your mental and physical wellbeing.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.