Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

You’re having problems at work or at home. You’re stressed, and it’s beginning to show -- in more ways than one. You’ve noticed a bulge around your mid-section that wasn’t there before. Where are these extra pounds coming from?

Stress could be one of the culprits. It plays a role in weight gain. While it can make you have less of an appetite at first, long-term "chronic" stress actually boosts your hunger.

Fight and Flight

Most of us become overeaters when we're feeling a lot of pressure. This happens thanks to your fight-or-flight response, a.k.a. survival mode -- once your body reaches a certain stress level, it does what it feels it needs to. In most cases, that means overeat.

Why? Because your body thinks you’ve used calories to deal with your stress, even though you haven’t, says Pamela Peeke, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. As a result, it thinks you need to replenish those calories, even though you don’t.

Cortisol and Comfort Foods

Levels of "the stress hormone," cortisol, rise during tension-filled times. This can turn your overeating into a habit. Because increased levels of the hormone also help cause higher insulin levels, your blood sugar drops and you crave sugary, fatty foods.

So instead of a salad or a banana, you’re more likely to reach for cookies or mac and cheese. That’s why they’re called “comfort foods.”

Jason Perry Block, MD, an assistant professor of population medicine at Harvard, says eating can be a source of solace and can lower stress.

“This happens, in part, because the body releases chemicals in response to food that might have a direct calming effect.”

Fatty and sugary foods are usually the big culprits, because lots of us have such a strong love for them.

The bottom line? “More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist.

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Lingering Effects of Weight Gain

Carrying around extra pounds can lead to other, more serious problems, including:

If you think your weight has gone up due to stress, tackle some good habits that can help you get back to your old self. Eat healthy, get active, and do things that make your relaxed and happy.

“The stronger the focus and determination, the faster this can be reversed,” Peeke says.

Tips to Ease Your Stress

Exercise, but don’t overdo it. High-intensity workouts can raise cortisol levels. Try a brisk walk.

Meditate, or try other mindful breathing exercises like yoga and tai chi.These can help clear your mind and curb those comfort-food impulses.

Get support from family and friends. It’s always good to have someone to talk to or lean on. If you’re feeling tense, speak with someone about it.

You could also:

  • Read
  • Listen to music
  • Pray

Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep, too.

We all struggle with stress once in a while. It’s up to you to take charge of your tension as best you can. Resisting the urge to overeat is a great start.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on February 03, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Pamela Peek, MD, assistant professor of medicine, University of Maryland.

Jason Perry Block, MD, assistant professor of population medicine, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare.

Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, president, EQQIL.

Harvard Health Publications: “Why stress causes people to overeat.”

Association for Psychological Science: “Stress Hurts Our Minds and Our Bodies.” 

Project AWARE: “Cortisol and Weight.” 

The Brothers Network: “What Is Cortisol?” 

University of New Mexico Exercise Science: “Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight,” Maglione-Garves, C.; Kravitz, L. PhD; Schneider, S. PhD (Authors)

American Psychological Association: “Stress a Major Health Problem in The U.S., Warns APA.”

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