How stress affects your weight and what you can do about it

What is Stress

Google the word stress and you may be surprised to find that there are thousands of definitions and they are all very different. The American Psychological Association says stress is “our physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors.” Another common definition of stress is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

Stress was originally defined in 1936 by Hans Selye, an Australian Endocrinologist who studied stress, as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  He believed that stress up to a certain point was a good thing, motivating people to accomplish more and after a certain point too much stress became harmful.

The body and mind experience stress – it includes feelings of emotional strain, tension, or pressure and the body’s physical response to those feelings.

Effects of chronic stress on the body

Stress, during an acute event, is necessary to provide our bodies with the energy needed to survive, to escape a threat. Stress causes the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline) triggering the fight or flight response. This causes heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar to increase all of which provide extra alertness and energy to help you escape the danger – like the dog that is trying to attack you for example. This type of stress reaction and the cascade of events it triggers subside once the threat is gone.

Chronic stress is different. It’s not this acute here and gone phenomenon. It isn’t a dog attacking you or a near miss car accident. Financial pressures, marriage stress, increasing family demands and countless other things can lead to chronic stress that can create the same physical responses.

Prolonged stress causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Just like adrenaline caused blood sugar levels to rise in response to the short term threat, cortisol keeps blood sugar levels up in response to the long term threat. Since that sugar isn’t all going to be needed to escape a physical threat like a dog attack the excess sugar will be stored as fat. The kicker is that there are more cortisol receptors in the abdominal fat cells than anywhere else so that’s where more of it will be stored. This explains the increased abdominal fat (visceral fat), which also then increases risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Other ways stress causes weight gain

Stress can be a contributor to weight gain or difficulty losing weight for many reasons other than the ones we discussed above.  Studies have repeatedly shown that when people are stressed they often turn to food for comfort and that often their food preferences in those situations include foods high in fat, sugar, or both. How often have you heard the term comfort food used? Does food actually provide emotional comfort? For many of us that is something we have to address.

Stress is also known to cause people to lose sleep, exercise less, drink more alcohol, all of which contribute to weight gain. People who are stressed are less likely to plan or cook healthy meals and are more likely to opt for easy meals or fast food. Stress makes living a healthy lifestyle and taking care of yourself more difficult and therefore maintaining a healthy weight less likely.

What can you do

Managing stress is important for both your mental and physical health. We have talked about the effects that prolonged stress has on your body and how it can affect your weight. Now let’s talk about what you can do to take back some control. Life is crazy. We all have responsibilities and they aren’t going to get any less. The bills aren’t going to pay themselves and our jobs aren’t going to give us less hours or duties. So, we have to be realistic in our plans to counteract the effects of stress.

  • Exercise regularly – maybe you don’t like the gym, but exercise is proven to decrease the adrenaline and cortisol levels that chronic stress has caused. It also stimulates the release of endorphins, known as the “feel good chemical” in our brains. We need it. You don’t have to go to the gym. Find something you like. Anything that will get you physically active. Get outdoors. Do something with a friend. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be a whole 30 minutes at a time, break it up into smaller time segments if you need to. Just get moving.
  • Counseling – Talking with a professional can be one of the best ways to work through your stress and develop new coping skills and perspectives. You might be surprised at just how much working on decreasing your stress level with a professional can help jump start your progress on your weight loss journey.
  • Have fun – There is plenty of research – I won’t bore you with data – about the benefits of play and laughter in adults – but you need to make time for having fun. Whether that means playing a silly game and laughing hysterically with your kids or having a night out with the girls it is a scientifically proven way to reduce your stress level.
  • Social support – support of friends/family – always make time to spend with friends and family. Often when we are stressed we isolate ourselves, which just increases our stress.
  • Track your food and activity – it is important that we hold ourselves accountable. We need to track our food to recognize our patterns. We like to let ourselves slide when we are stressed but this just leads to guilt for letting ourselves slide and then more stress.
  • Plan your meals – When we are stressed we less likely to plan and cook healthy meals. So we need to be more diligent about trying to do it. If you can plan to carry healthy snacks with you instead of grabbing whatever is handy while you are at work this will help too. Just being aware that these are the first things we let go when we are stressed and trying to be more diligent will make you more likely to keep going.
  • Be more mindful of comfort eating – changing how we think about food is not easy. The idea that food will bring emotional comfort has somehow become part of our culture. Are you hungry? Will eating this food fix this problem? If you somehow who struggles with emotional or stress eating this is something to consider discussing with a counselor. Some people also find that meditation helps with mindful eating.