Stress induced weight gain is very common but often overlooked. Whether it’s triggered by work, personal relationships, finance or endless scrolling on social media, if you don’t implement some instant self-care strategies you are going to fight a losing battle.
Cortisol: The stress hormone
Every time you get stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. This triggers a load of chemical reactions including the release of glucose (your primary source of energy) from your liver and into your bloodstream. All of this is done to give you fast energy in case you need to fight or escape from a threat. (1)
Once the threat disappears, your adrenaline wears off and your blood sugar levels (energy) drastically drops. This is where cortisol levels rise high to quickly replace your energy.
In one-off situations this response is crucial. However, prolonged periods of stress keep your cortisol levels elevated which means more blood sugar spikes, higher blood pressure, insulin and fat storage. All of this sets off a chain reaction in which weight gain becomes a vicious cycle.
Here are 5 signs that stress is causing your weight gain:
- Uncontrollable sugar cravings
Sugar is one of the first things you crave when under intense stress because it supplies the body with the quick energy it thinks it needs to escape the stress. To make use of that sugar the body releases insulin which shuttles it into our cells for immediate use.
However, the prolonged stress that we endure today isn’t one that requires us to run away or fight, and so instead of using the sugar straight away we store it in the liver and when that becomes full (which is pretty quickly) the body converts the excess sugar it into fat which has almost unlimited storage *cry face* causing us to gain weight around our stomach and face!
2. Slower metabolism
Even if you have mighty levels of self-control and avoid foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol suppresses your immune system and slows down your metabolism to conserve energy. At the same time it stimulates the release of ghrelin which enhances appetite and increases cravings for calorie dense fatty foods.
A 2015 study by researchers at Ohio State University interviewed women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before giving them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. After finishing the meal, they measured the women’s metabolic rates (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and examined their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels. The researchers found that women who reported one or more stressors the day before burned 104 calories less than non-stressed women and had higher insulin levels. (2)
3. Poor sleep
Cortisol is more than a stress response hormone that regulates your metabolism, blood pressure and immune system. It is also responsible for regulating your sleep/wake cycle. However, too much cortisol is associated with interrupted sleep and leads to increased fat storage and hunger. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggested that people who were partially sleep-deprived consumed around 385 calories more per day than people who were not. (3) In addition, sleep deprivation contributes to chronic stress, thus creating a vicious cycle.
Despite all your best efforts to eat better, watch your calories and exercise more, your belly fat just doesn’t seem to reduce. When excess insulin and cortisol are released together, they create lipoprotein lipase (LPL) which is a fat storing enzyme. The more of this enzyme you have, the more belly fat you store.
4. Stubborn Belly Fat
The prolonged high levels of cortisol also cause damage to your cells, lowering their insulin sensitivity. When you begin to resist insulin, your blood sugar keeps rising and your hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin) become unbalanced. Your brain struggles to accurately perceive when you are full or hungry and you are no longer able to control the amount of food you eat.
5. Your workouts don’t work anymore
Stress has a negative impact on the effects of your exercise routine. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that psychological stress inhibits muscle recovery following strenuous resistance exercise. (4) In addition, cortisol is a catabolic hormone that inhibits muscle growth through processes that breaks down muscle proteins to provide energy. This makes burning fat more difficult and lowers your overall basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you burn per day).
3 things you can do today to stop the stress induced weight gain cycle
Make exercise a priority
Exercise is a known stress-reliever and hormone balancer. In addition, it is the perfect tool for weight management. If you struggle with motivation, start with low barrier and low intensity exercise like walking, cycling and beginner friendly workouts – we have an extensive library of fantastic workout programs on the MrandMrsMuscle app or you can try some of our low impact workouts for free on Youtube.
Sleep earlier and longer!
When your body is ready to sleep your melatonin levels increase and your cortisol levels decrease. Getting 7-9 hours sleep can significantly decrease your cortisol levels and reduce existing feelings of stress and anxiety. In addition, sleep has a direct affect on our immune system, appetite, blood pressure, respiratory system and cardiovascular health.
Choose healthier comfort foods
Studies testing the effectiveness of comfort foods in improving mood found that eating relatively healthier comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn, is just as likely to satisfy your mood as high sugar and fat “unhealthy” foods. (5)
Making sure your pantry is stocked with healthy alternatives, makes it easier to reach for during times of high stress.
1. Goldstein DS. Adrenal responses to stress. Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2010;30(8):1433–1440. doi:10.1007/s10571-010-9606-9
2. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Habash DL, Fagundes CP, Andridge R, Peng J, Malarkey WB & Belury MA. Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: A novel path to obesity. Biol Psychiatry. 2015; 77(7):653–660. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018
3. “The effects of partial sleep deprivation on energy balance: a systematic review and meta-analysis” by H K Al Khatib, S V Harding, J Darzi and G K Pot in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published online November 2 2016 doi:10.1038/ejcn.2016.201
4. Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB. Psychological stress impairs short-term muscular recovery from resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Nov;44(11):2220-7. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31825f67a0. PMID: 22688829.
5. Wagner HS, Ahlstrom B, Redden JP, Vickers Z, Mann T. The myth of comfort food. Health Psychol. 2014;33(12):1552-1557. doi:10.1037/hea0000068