Can stress cause weight gain? Yes. Here's how!

Hungry Man eating a cookie

Stress can cause weight gain. There are several reasons for this:

And in this article, we'll take a look at all of the important links between stress and weight gain.

But let's start from the beginning...

What is stress?

Stress is your body's normal and natural response to dangerous situations.

When you're faced with some event which you perceive as threatening, your body reacts by releasing hormones like adrenaline and the “stress hormone” cortisol. This is designed to ready your body to overcome the threat to its survival.

This might involve raising your heart rate and blood pressure so that blood can reach your muscles more quickly – and increasing your reaction times.

This reaction is called the “fight or flight” or stress response.

Does stress make you fat?

For all its survival advantages, yes – stress can play a role in weight gain.

That hormone, cortisol, released as part of your body's stress response is partly to blame. Here's how:

  • 1. Your body releases adrenaline and other hormones. This makes you more ready to act and more likely to survive. One of the effects is a reduced desire to eat.
  • 2. You overcome the dangerous situation. When your fight or flight response is triggered “correctly”, you will almost certainly need to use up some calories to get out of the situation. You might need to run away from a dangerous predator, for example.
  • 3. Or not... Sometimes though, your stress response is triggered when you don't need to use any calories to overcome the situation. These days, you're more likely to be stressed because of a deadline at work, for instance. Unfortunately, our bodies haven't evolved to handle this...
  • 4. Then cortisol stimulates your appetite. Your body doesn't “know” whether you have used up calories to defeat that situation or not and stimulates or appetite to make up any deficit automatically.

There are also other reasons why stress can cause weight gain...

Measuring Tape

Stress weight gain – what other effects might be to blame?

1) You have lower blood sugar

The changes which the stress hormone brings about in your body to help you survive include causing you to have higher insulin levels and lower blood sugar over time.

  • This means you will crave foods high in sugar or fat to try and compensate.
  • Insulin is also partly responsible for controlling the storage of fat.

2) You want comfort food

Comfort eating isn't just a phrase. Your body releases chemicals in response to you eating food which might have an actual – and direct – calming effect.

When you are feeling stressed, going for that sugary or fatty dopamine hit is a common response.

3) Your metabolism may be slowed down

Recent research (carried out at Ohio State University in 2015) showed that, in women at least, stress may have links to a slower metabolism.

The study showed that the participants in the experiment who had experienced stress in the previous 24 hours burned – on average – 104 fewer calories from the same diet compared with those who didn't.

They also had a reduced amount of fat oxidisation. This is part of your body's process for converting large fat molecules into smaller ones which can be used, rather than stored.

4) It can be worse at night

More current research (this time by scientists from Stanford University School of Medicine) has shown that if you experience chronic or continuous stress at night time, the interruption to your circadian rhythms can – via interrupting the process of glucocorticoid oscillation (part of how your body regulates what cells to turn into fat cells) – lead to even more significant weight gain.

This is also the reason why glucocorticoid medications for asthma and rheumatoid arthritis can likewise lead to weight gain.

Woman measuring waist of overweight man

Stress and obesity

When stress is ongoing or chronic, weight gain can be a constant danger.

Stress and obesity also have a link in that the former can affect where your body tends to store fat:

  • Abdominal fat is more difficult to get rid of than many other types of fat.
  • It is also associated with higher risks of poor health outcomes.

Unfortunately, abdominal fat is also the type which high-stress levels encourage the creation of.

Stress and weight gain – the cycle

There are a number of ways in which stress and weight gain and related activities – or lack of activity – conspire together:

  • Sleeping less: getting less sleep is a common side-effect of stress. Unfortunately, this can slow your metabolism. Plus, if you're tired all the time, you might not have the willpower to resist things like...
  • Eating junk food: because of the reasons listed above, if you are stressed you will tend to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. Needless to say, these foods are not generally good for your weight.
  • Comfort eating: if you are stressed, you may tend to want to eat more. You may do so because you are agitated or because it provokes a soothing release of chemicals from your body.
  • Skipping exercise: stressed people often have less time – or perceive that they do. Exercise is often one of the first things to be removed from a busy person's schedule. Few things are worse for weight gain than a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Skipping meals: although stress eating refers to consuming more because of stress, being stressed can also affect your diet in other ways. Skipping meals is not a healthy thing to do. Yet, for many stressed people, it's a common occurrence.
  • Drinking less water: drinking water can actually help you lose weight. Primarily because it helps you burn more calories. But there is a range of health benefits of drinking a proper amount of water. When you're stressed, it's easy to forget to do this.
  • Experimenting with fad diets: people who notice any stress-weight gain affect are often compelled to try some type of fad diet. Unfortunately, despite how good any of these may sound in the short term, it's highly unlikely that any diet will be as good as simply eating a healthy, balanced intake of food and getting some regular exercise.
Woman Receiving a back massage

How to stop stress eating

The most effective way to stop stress eating is to deal with the stress which is the underlying cause:

  • Try out any of the stress relief products you can find online: check the reviews to see if anyone who sounds like they're in a situation like yours has found some relief using that particular product.
  • Make some time for yourself: a packed schedule is often a huge contributing factor to feeling stressed. Even if it's only ten minutes, try and take a little time for yourself. Listen to some music, read a book, watch some mindless TV – whatever helps you relax.
  • Get some exercise in: but keep it to a gentle jog or fast walk. You don't want to raise your cortisol levels with a power workout!
  • Meditate and relax: as well as seated meditation, you might want to try tai chi or yoga.

You might also want to try to get some more sleep or to talk about your problem with a trusted friend or family member – no matter how initially embarrassing it might feel.

You should also consider speaking with your doctor if you feel you are struggling to handle stress and nothing is helping.

Henry Warren I am a professional writer and health & wellness enthusiast.