Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?
How to keep the world's woes from weighing you down
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
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.
"Often, our response to stress today is to sit and stew in our
frustration and anger, without expending any of the calories or food stores
that we would if we were physically fighting our way out of stress or
danger," says Shawn Talbott, PhD, an associate professor in the Department
of Nutrition at the University of Utah and author of The Cortisol
"Often, eating becomes the activity that relieves the stress"
In other words, since your neuro-endocrine system doesn't know you didn't
fight or flee, it still responds to stress with the hormonal signal to
replenish nutritional stores -- which may make you feel hungry.