Stress is often a silent obstacle blunting weight loss efforts. In fact, chronic stress can cause weight gain.
Health and wellness experts harp on the importance of sleep and reducing stress, but it falls on tired ears that still believe nutrition and exercise are the only ways to lose weight. Unfortunately, the body does not care how much protein it receives or the intensity of workouts when it perceives high amounts of stress.
So, how does stress make you gain weight? Stay tuned for a deep dive into the relationship between stress weight gain and how to combat it!
Types of Stress
Stress is generally acute or chronic in nature, although some people also acknowledge a third type called acute episodic stress. All types of stress trigger biological responses that cause the release of certain chemicals and hormones.
Acute stress is short-term and causes an immediate reaction. Once the danger, freight, excitement, etc. passes, the body quickly returns to baseline. Things that cause acute stress include exercise, illness, car crashes, minor injuries, exciting activities like roller coasters, and other "risky" behaviors.
However, severe acute stress can lead to health detriment due to the major toll it takes on the body. This kind of stress is common in major injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions.
Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic acute stress refers to frequent episodes of acute stress, usually triggered by the same or similar causes each time.
This could look like getting anxious every Tuesday before meeting with a boss or worrying about dropping kids off at daycare or feeling queasy before races. Certain high-risk professions like policemen, firefighters, lawyers, and mental health therapists frequently suffer from this type of stress as well.
Unlike pure acute stress, episodic acute stress can affect physical and mental health negatively since the stress is fairly repetitive.
Ongoing in nature, chronic stress is the most severe and detrimental to all kinds of health. It's caused by perpetual rumination or anxiety and typically disrupts normal life. This makes daily tasks more difficult and can lead to conditions like:
• Anxiety and depression
• High blood pressure
• Cardiovascular disease
• Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome
• Weakened immune system
In addition, chronic stress has strong ties to elevated the stress hormone cortisol levels.
Note that while stress response mechanisms are more or less the same for everyone, different factors and situations cause different degrees of stress for everyone. Furthermore, it's common for an acute stressor to morph into episodic or even chronic stress.
A non-exhaustive list of common acute and chronic stressors:
• Exercise (especially HIIT forms)
• Undereating and overeating
• Physical injuries
• Acute and chronic illnesses
• Living through natural disasters or pandemics
• Surviving a life-threatening accident or illness
• Being diagnosed with an illness
• Being a victim of a crime
• Unhappy marriages and relationships
• Child custody problems
• Caring for elderly loved ones
• Working in a risky or dangerous profession
• Working long hours
• Military deployment
• Ruminating thoughts
• Frequent Deadlines
How Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?
Acute stress rarely causes meaningful weight gain. The episodes are acute enough in nature that they do not drastically encourage abnormal behavior, nor do they create the lasting chemical and hormonal changes that episodic and chronic stress can.
On the other hand, chronic stress levels lead to altered metabolism and a slew of symptoms that may promote weight gain. These include:
• Chronic pain
• Insomnia or circadian rhythm disruption
• Digestive problems
• Increased or reduced appetite
• Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
• Fatigue and low motivation
• Mood swings
• A sense of overwhelm
Generally, these symptoms cause a domino effect of reactions that then lead to weight gain.
For example, chronic pain, increased fatigue, and low motivation may discourage someone from sticking with their normal fitness routine, leading to weight gain over time.
Insomnia and disrupted circadian rhythms increase ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and encourage more caloric intake throughout the day. Sleep problems often reduce motivation to exercise and decrease non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT - a movement that isn't planned like exercise) as well.
Difficult concentration and indecisiveness may lead to making poorer nutritional choices at the moment (stress eating). A strong sense of overwhelm may lead to convenient food choices that are not exactly nutrient-dense.
Yet, the main reason chronic stress causes weight gain is related to chronically elevated cortisol levels.
When the body perceives chronic physical, mental or emotional stress, it consistently releases extra amounts of cortisol. Recall that cortisol is helpful in acute situations because it prepares the body to survive. In some instances, it helps people survive dire situations.
Now imagine the body constantly preparing to fend off a bear. The body remains in fight or flight mode, which requires consistent secretion of glucose and therefore insulin.
This creates a major metabolic problem because even though the body thinks you need extra glucose to function, you are likely not using it all. The increased insulin secretion can eventually lead to insulin resistance.
As long as insulin is present in the blood, the body will not tap into fat stores. Instead, it encourages the storage of all macronutrients. This creates an environment that makes it very difficult to avoid weight gain, let alone attempt to lose weight.
This typically stresses people out even more, drives cravings for more sugary "comfort" foods, and creates a vicious cycle.
Tips to Combat Stress Weight Gain
Stressful situations are inevitable. However, you can learn to prevent and manage stress to lower the risk of weight gain.
Get Enough High-Quality Sleep
Doing this is the single best way to naturally reduce stress. Consistently getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep allows the body time to recover and repair sufficiently. It will not completely reverse the effects of chronic stress, but it can greatly reduce the side effects and symptoms.
Sleep also helps with blood sugar balance and optimizing hormone levels. It especially helps balance ghrelin and leptin, the hunger and fullness hormones, which can then drive appropriate consumption of total calories throughout the day.
Manage External Stress Effectively
Reducing cortisol levels requires sufficiently addressing external stress. The body can, unfortunately, perceive when typical stress-reducing techniques like meditation and journaling are ineffective. The stress-reducing techniques need to be tailored to the individual and properly address the root causes of stress.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet Rich in B Vitamins
Chronically elevated cortisol levels can deplete b vitamins, which are necessary for energy levels and blood sugar balance among other processes.
All the B vitamins are important, but B3, B6, B12, and folate are especially important. These are plentiful in leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, animal protein, and high-quality whole grains.
Balance Blood Sugar
It is vital to balance blood sugar during times of high stress to combat the already increased release of glucose and insulin-related elevated cortisol levels.
Balance blood sugar by:
• Always pairing a carb with a protein or fat
• Eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables
• Reducing processed and packaged food intake
• Taking 5-minute walks right after meals
• Making most carb consumption high fiber foods
Exercise Consistently and Gently
While regular exercise certainly helps reduce stress, it is actually better to focus on gentle movement or exercise when chronically stressed.
Exercise is an acute stressor that increases cortisol secretion. However, gentle movements like walking, yoga, stretching, and recreational sports minimize cortisol and allow one to reap the other benefits without the high release of the stress hormone.
Any type of movement increases neurotransmitters associated with happy, focused, and calm feelings as well.
Consider an Adaptogen
Finally, taking an adaptogen complex with targeted herbs - like ashwagandha, rhodiola, cordyceps, and holy basil - can help the body naturally balance cortisol levels.
Adaptogens are effective in that they adapt to the body's imbalances and exert whatever effect is needed. Therefore, they can also help increase cortisol levels in the later stages of adrenal fatigue.
The Bottom Line
Though the initial response to stress is similar in any kind of situation, the varying types of stress ultimately affect the body differently in the long term.
Short-term stress is generally regarded as helpful, allowing the body to acutely promote survival through various biological processes. However, chronic stress tires the body, causes over-secretion of cortisol, depletes certain nutrients, and increases glucose and insulin release. Over time, this reduces metabolism and can lead to overt insulin resistance, which causes weight gain.
Getting enough high-quality sleep and managing external stress effectively are the best ways to reduce stress weight gain. Exercising wisely and eating a nutrient-dense diet that prioritizes blood sugar balance and B vitamins will diminish the risk of stress weight gain further.
Legg T. Everything to Know about Stress: Causes, Prevention, and More. Healthline. Updated February 25, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/stress#types.