How stress makes you gain weight

Taken from the blog of Renu Arora, RD (, this post reinforces the idea that stress in our daily lives has a tremendous impact on how our bodies manage weight. Spoiler Alert: Stress really does make you gain weight!! So, chill out guys. Take a mental break regularly and calm your nerves as much as possible. Read on for Dr. Arora’s interpretation. 

How stress makes you gain weight.

I’m sure we’ve all heard it said at some point that when you’re stressed it becomes very difficult to lose weight. It’s not simply the idea that people overeat when stressed, or have limited emotional reserves left to focus on healthy eating; often it is quite the contrary. Stress affects the production of different hormones in the body, namely adrenalin and cortisol, and it is the action of these hormones that has a profound effect on our metabolism and tendency to gain weight.

Adrenalin is responsible for short-term stress situations. If we think back to how we evolved, short-term stress situations were instances when our lives were in immediate danger; for example, a wild animal emerged from the forest, or someone from a rival tribe attacked. This would initiate the “fight or flight” response for which adrenalin is responsible.  If we are to either fight or run, we need immediate blood flow to our arms and legs and we need sugar in our bloodstream to fuel our muscles. So, blood flow is diverted away from our digestive system (can’t waste energy digesting lunch if we’re about to become lunch for something else!) to power up the rest of the body, and our liver and muscles start releasing sugar into the blood to provide fuel for the upcoming exertion. In addition to other effects, appetite is suppressed (can’t afford to be distracted by a rumbling stomach at a time like this!) as is the immune system (fighting an infection is less of a priority than fighting for your life.) Once the immediate threat is over, once we’ve either won the fight or escaped, our adrenaline levels come back down and blood flow, blood sugars, and normal functioning returns.

Nowadays, it is fairly rare for most of us to be in situations where our life is in actual danger, however, anxiety and stress in our everyday environment can still initiate this ancient response. You’ve slept through your alarm and have only 15 minutes to get yourself and your kids ready and out the door. You are caught in rush hour traffic and are running late for a meeting. You arrive to work to find 40 e-mails waiting for you. You feel like you don’t even have time to breathe and you’ve only been awake for an hour! This kind of perceived stress will send your adrenaline levels soaring and your blood sugars through the roof! But since this is occurring while you’re sitting at your desk, you really have no need for that extra sugar; instead of being used to fight or run, the excess sugar triggers another hormone – insulin – to store it once again; once the muscles have as much as they can hold, the rest is turned to fat.

So you can see in the short-term how stress causes weight gain. Now once the body believes that the threat to our health is long-term, the dominant stress hormone changes from adrenaline to cortisol. Historically, long-term stresses used to only be things like famine or war, when long-term survival was at stake, whereas today we stress about finances, relationships, health, weight, and so forth. You can probably guess what the body will do to promote long-term survival, when we believe times will be tough and food will be scarce…we conserve! Muscle uses more energy than fat, so we break down muscle and convert any extra energy to fat. Hormonal balances change in order to utilize as little energy as possible. So despite being in a state of plenty, our bodies react as though we are preparing for starvation, so a diet that was just right for weight maintenance before is causing weight gain.

So if you’re eating well, exercising, and still not seeing the reduction in fat you were expecting, consider that the stress in your life may be impairing your ability to lose weight. Look at ways to relieve stress: deep breathing, meditation, yoga, pilates, a warm soak in a tub, aromatherapy; do what works for you. Until you tackle that rampant cortisol, achieving your weight loss goal will continue to be an uphill battle.

Reference: Weaver, Libby. Accidentally Overweight. 3rd ed. USA: Little Green Frog Publishing Ltd, 2011. Print.

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