Do you notice that your body changes during times of stress? More specifically, your weight? Studies suggest a strong link between stress and weight gain, but why? In this article, we break it down for you.
The link between stress and weight gain
Stress can cause many negative issues, with weight gain being one of them. It can impact the ability to maintain a healthy weight and prevent you from losing weight. And whether it's due to your body's response to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol or stress-induced unhealthy habits, learning how to manage your stress can help prevent stress-related weight gain.
What is Cortisol?
Most of us would have heard of cortisol, but what do we actually know about it?
Cortisol is a naturally produced hormone created by the adrenal glands on the kidneys. When you're stressed, your nervous system responds by releasing high levels of it, resulting in glucose (your primary source of energy) being released into your bloodstream. Thus, sending you into the fight-or-flight response. This hormone's primary goal is to help provide more energy for the body by stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism, causing an increase in appetite.
This hormone is essential to our survival as it provides the energy needed to react to what could be a life-threatening situation. However, it becomes pretty harmful in excess amounts. And if stress is always present, you may experience overexposure to cortisol and a significant increase in appetite, which is why so many turn to stressed-induced comfort eating.
When stressed, your insulin levels are raised. This combination of high cortisol and high insulin creates an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPA), which is responsible for storing fat, mainly around your belly . So, not only does high levels of Cortisol promotes weight gain, but consuming excess calories while stressed could also be the culprit of your hard-to-rid belly fat. Fat accumulated around the belly is also known as "toxic fat", as it's attributed to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Cortisol slows down your metabolism
Even if you're not a comfort eater, eating healthy foods when stressed may still cause weight gain as cortisol slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.
Your metabolism is responsible for converting food into energy, and changing how this system works can lead to an upward shift in body weight.
Cortisol causes cravings
As you know, releasing cortisol provides the energy you need to "fight or flight" during stressful situations. And as sugary, salty and fatty foods are the fastest (not the best) way to fuel our bodies to create the energy your brain thinks it needs, sugar-filled and processed foods are usually the first things people go for when stressed.
So, if you're consistently stressed due to work, family or other everyday situations, this could be the cause of your sugar cravings.
Cortisol may cause overeating
Another manifestation of cortisol release is increased appetite, which helps our bodies deal with the fight-or-flight response. This increase usually causes overeating, which can become a habit over time. Thus, starting a vicious cycle - get stressed, overeat, gain weight, get stressed, overeat, and so on.
Stress releases cortisol, and increased levels of this hormone cause higher insulin levels and a drop in blood sugar which causes sugar cravings and an increase in appetite.
This increase in appetite and these cravings help our body create the energy it thinks it needs to overcome a stressful situation.
If our bodies create too much cortisol when we don't need it, this can cause us to overeat unhealthy foods, store fat and gain weight.
Stress-Induced Unhealthy Habits
Stress can also cause unhealthy behaviours, which can cause weight gain. Some of these behaviours include:
Comfort eating: Being stressed isn't a nice feeling, and when we're not feeling good, we tend to seek out behaviours that make us feel better. And for some, that's reaching for sweet treats or caloric dense "comfort food" as it provides some temporary relief. Over time, this can become a habit, making weight management more difficult.
"Easy" eating: Stress can deplete a lot of mental energy, and after a full day of stress, the last thing someone wants to do is spend a few hours in the kitchen cooking a balanced, healthy meal. Most would turn to "easy" food such as takeaways or packet, processed meals. Doing this now and then isn't going to harm you. However, if you find yourself eating easy options due to stress, often, this can cause weight gain and other health issues.
Skipping meals: Stress can be due to having "too much on your plate" or being busier than you would like, and being too busy can cause you to skip meals. This may sound like a good thing for weight management, but it's actually the opposite. Undereating can significantly slow your metabolism. It's important not to confuse skipping meals with intermittent fasting.
Poor sleep: Another thing that can slow down your metabolism is not getting enough sleep, and as many people struggle to sleep when stressed, not sleeping well for long periods can cause weight gain, amongst other health issues.
How do I better deal with weight management when I'm stressed?
Although prevention is better, we can't altogether remove stress from our lives. So, below is a list of things that may help manage weight in times of stress.
Make sure your kitchen is stocked with quality whole foods: Keep easy, healthy food on hand, such as berries, nuts and coconut yoghurt, so when you start craving a snack, you'll reach for high-quality foods instead of processed ones.
Practice mindful eating: Focus on what you're eating and how much you eat. Being conscious of what you're eating when stressed can ensure you're not overeating or eating foods that'll cause weight gain.
Keep a food journal: If you go into autopilot when you eat, it may be handy to start writing a food journal. By paying attention to what you eat, it may help you improve your eating habits and gain control over your food consumption.
Drink more water: It's common to confuse mild dehydration for hunger. When we reach for a snack, usually it's because we're thirsty, especially if it's only been a few hours after our last meal. Rule out hunger by reaching for a big glass of water instead of a snack. Grab a handful of nuts or a green apple if you're still hungry afterwards.
How do I manage stress levels?
It's one thing to say, "stop stressing", but how does one actually achieve this? Although we can't completely remove stress forever, there are ways to help manage and reduce these harmful hormone levels. These include:
Daily exercise: Exercising can help with stress reduction as it releases endorphins, which have natural stress-fighting properties. Whether going for a brisk walk or hitting the gym, regular exercise can help keep your stress levels low.
Practise meditation and yoga: Meditation and yoga are both known to help reduce and manage stress levels. So find a quiet place, and take 10 minutes to quiet the mind or stretch. YouTube offers hundreds of videos that can help get you started.
Get outside and enjoy nature: Many people are either stuck inside or behind the wheel most of the day and usually forget how calming nature is. Take 10 minutes out of your day to go for a walk or to sit in the grass.
Other stress-relief strategies include:
- Take a deep breath or practise breathing techniques
- Listening to your favourite music
- Watching your favourite funny movie
- Taking a hot bath
- Getting a massage or facial
- Be kind to yourself
- Read a book
- Spend time with animals
- Reduce or cut your caffeine and alcohol intake
- Say "no" more often to things that you don't really want to go.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to provide medical advice. All information, content, and material in this blog post are to inform the reader only. Our content is not intended to serve as a replacement for the consultation, diagnosis, and medical treatment of a qualified doctor or healthcare provider.