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Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

How to keep the world's woes from weighing you down
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WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature

Your job is hanging by a thread, and the credit-card bills are mounting. Your teenager wants to quit school and become a professional snowboarder. Or maybe it's the increasing tensions in the world, brought to you 24 hours a day on your TV screen, getting you down.

Regardless of the reason, stress is a way of life in the 21st century. And for some people, the effects go beyond feelings of anxiety and discomfort. For these people, stress can mean facing each day ravenously hungry -- and adding weight gain to their list of worries.

"While the immediate . . . response to acute stress can be a temporary loss of appetite, more and more we are coming to recognize that for some people, chronic stress can be tied to an increase in appetite -- and stress-induced weight gain," says Elissa Epel, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco.

The problem, she says, lies within our neuroendocrine system -- a brain-to-body connection that harkens back to evolutionary times and which helped our distant ancestors to survive. Though today the source of the stress is more likely to be an unpaid bill than a saber-toothed tiger, this system still activates a series of hormones whenever we feel threatened.

"These hormones give us the biochemical strength we need to fight or flee our stressors," Epel tells WebMD.

The hormones released when we're stressed include adrenalin -- which gives us instant energy -- along with corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. While high levels of adrenalin and CRH decrease appetite at first, the effects usually don't last long.

And cortisol works on a different timetable. Its job is to help us replenish our body after the stress has passed, and it hangs around a lot longer. "It can remain elevated, increasing your appetite and ultimately driving you to eat more," says Epel.

'Fight or flee' -- or chow down

While this system works fine when our stress comes in the form of physical danger -- when we really need to "fight or flee", and then replenish -- it doesn't serve the same purpose for today's garden-variety stressors.

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