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Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

Stress makes us more likely to eat unhealthy, calorie-laden snacks, and most of us get less sleep when we are stressed. Find out what stress really is, and how to beat it once and for all.

Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

When you see a few pounds creep up, or maybe you have a few stubborn pounds that just won't let go-stress can and absolutely does cause weight gain. Stress makes us more likely to eat unhealthy, calorie-laden snacks, and most of us get less sleep when we are stressed. Stress releases cortisol, a stress hormone that is known to cause weight gain. Stress is more than just a feeling - it has a direct, biological effect on our body system.

Good Stress or Bad Stress?

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Good stress, or stress caused by positive events is called eustress by psychologists, and this kind of stress can actually be a good thing. It's a healthy challenge; an obstacle to overcome that builds self-efficacy and possibly self-esteem.

Eustress-or the positive challenge part of stress-is the opposite of distress. Distress drains our energy and emotional resources, and we don't have the coping abilities yet to handle perceived distress. Distress feels very unpleasant, and decreases our motivation, productivity, and could even lead to mental health problems. Normally, excessive exposure to life's ‘distressful' events can cause weight gain for a variety of reasons.

What is Stress Really?

Stress is the equivalent to survival mode for our body systems. Cortisol is a hormone that is released into our bloodstream, and detectable in saliva, following the brain's perception of a stressful event. So stress starts in our brain, with a perceived stressful event. For example, for some people, driving on a busy freeway can be quite stressful. For others, it might be perceived as more of an adventurous game of dodge and weave - and we've all seen and probably avoid driving near these sorts of people.

In order to create cortisol, your adrenal glands (which are located atop each kidney) will begin with a cholesterol molecule, send it through a series of enzymes, and then cortisol can be released. But before your adrenal glands will do that, they must receive a signal from the pituitary gland, which is located in the central part of our brain.

Once our brain detects that something is fearful, or distressing, or out of our realm of control, it sends this message to our body. By the wonders of the human brain, this perception is translated into a hormonal signal that is sent to the adrenals, which will convert cholesterol into the active hormone cortisol through a number of steps.

Cortisol, once it is released, has a very specific biologic purpose. Cortisol is what scientists call a glucocorticoid - which means it is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose available in the bloodstream. This powerful hormone tells the liver to use all the skeletal muscle and fat reserves to create glucose and deposit this extra glucose into the blood stream. This is a good thing when we are about to fight a tiger, or run away from something we are afraid of - having extra glucose in the bloodstream can help ensure we have the readily available energy to escape.

The problem is-when we don't run away or burn all that extra glucose that cortisol has provided for us - then it will get stored as fat, and usually right around the belly area. This is the main reason why stress causes weight gain. And cortisol can also increase our appetite, again to help us recover after running away from a tiger. When we get stressed driving, our body releases cortisol to cope, but we are just sitting in our cars - we don't actually need that glucose and we don't always burn it.

With work stress, if you made a mistake or forgot something important and you perceive this is a stressful event, sometimes we are just sitting at our desks. And all the extra glucose that cortisol provided for us is not used. Your body is not wasteful, so this extra glucose will be converted into fat tissue and stored. This means we are breaking down fat and vital lean muscle tissue (which is the biggest part of our metabolic rate) and then storing it all over again as fat.

People who have excessive amounts of cortisol have a reduced sensitivity to the hormone insulin as well, which puts them at a much higher likelihood of developing diabetes and high blood sugars.

Cortisol and Sleep

Cortisol follows a circadian or inherent rhythm of the body, and is part of regulating our sleep-wake cycles. Cortisol is quite low during the first 2 hours of sleep, and then rise after the 3rd or 5th hour of sleep. It peaks highest just before awakening.

During a stressful moment, we perceive life as out of our control and sometimes this can be quite distressful. Cortisol increases our likelihood of consuming sugary, emergency calorie-snacking, and it also increases hunger due to changes in other hormone levels and our appetite, making stress and weight gain highly interconnected.

How to Beat Stress Weight Gain

Since stress begins in our brain, change your perception by trying these stress management techniques to combat stress-related weight gain:

1. Tell yourself that everything is going to be all right, and that this too shall pass.
2. Go for a walk if you are feeling stressed.
3. Practice positive psychology by writing down 2 or 3 good things that can come from this kind of stress.
4. View the stressful event as a challenge - one that will make you a better, smarter, or fitter person.
5. Fight the urge to eat - and instead find a way to relax and unwind from a stressful time period, such as a warm bath with a glass of wine, a good book, or company with good friends or family.
6. Vent - tell someone about your stressful event. You might not be looking for solutions to a problem, but sharing your frustrations can really help give you perspective, and your listener might be able to provide some empathy and encouragement.


Endocrinology (6th Edition) by Mac Hadley , Jon E. Levine. Published by Pearson Education, Inc, publishing as Benjamin Cummings, Copyright 2007. IBSN: 978-81-317-2610-5.

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