Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

Chronic stress can cause many long-term health issues. Is weight gain one of them? | Photo by Total Shape on

We all experience stress. In fact, a significant amount of people experience stress chronically. However, many recent findings say that chronic stress is a major contributing factor to many health issues. Chronic stress increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, mental illnesses, and even cancer. In fact, stress has been established as a risk factor for both metastasis and recurrence of certain cancers. 

But can stress cause weight gain too? 

Yes, chronic stress can cause weight gain. This results from an increase in the stress hormone— cortisol. Cortisol induces many physiological changes in response to chronic stress. These changes include an increase in appetite, sweet cravings, increased insulin release, reduced metabolism and sleep disturbances— all of these combined contribute to weight gain. 

Weight gain is only seen when we are chronically stressed. It is never seen with acute stress. 

Acute stress is short-term, i.e. normally lasts for some time. Once the stressor is over, our body resumes our normal functions and the stress hormone levels go down. 

But, when we are chronically stressed, our body starts producing the hormone of chronic stress— cortisol— more, to combat the perceived chronic stress. Persistently elevated level of cortisol is responsible for many of the health issues associated with chronic stress, including weight gain. 

How Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?

There are a few different ways weight gain can happen due to cortisol when we are chronically stressed.

1. We Crave Sugar More When We Are Stressed  

There are a few reasons why this happens.

  • Our brain consumes 12% more energy when we are stressed. As a result, our energy requirements will go up, so we crave sugar more.
  • Sugar/ carbohydrates are usually the major components of comfort food for us. They remind us of the good times we had— as a child or a good celebratory moment that we really cherish. Sweet things bring back those memories, make us nostalgic and feel good for a few moments.
  • When we eat food, our body releases feel-good hormones. In the case of eating, our body releases dopamine and endorphins— a normal phenomenon. However, in chronic stress, these feel-good hormones help us feel good, and that helps us cope with the stress we are experiencing chronically. We generally tend to reach for sugary food because they are more palatable.

2. Chronic Stress Increases Insulin Level

The increased release of insulin happens to cope with the increased demand for energy (in the hindsight, for running).

So, when there is increased insulin, there is increased clearance of glucose from the bloodstream. But as soon as the glucose levels go down, it triggers the brain to crave food to maintain your blood sugar level.

In addition to that, chronic stress also results in insulin resistance.

As a result, you eat more and gain weight.

3. Chronic Stress Causes Release Of Ghrelin

Also known as the Hunger Hormone, Ghrelin is the hormone that induces hunger. As per research, an increase in Ghrelin levels is seen when there is an increased level of cortisol in the system. The studies also noted that the level of ghrelin goes down when the level of cortisol goes down.

Although it’s not clear why this happens, there is a direct relation between the level of cortisol and the level of ghrelin in circulation.

Since chronic stress is characterised by elevated cortisol, ghrelin is elevated too. A persistently elevated level of the hunger hormone means that you will feel more hungry and eventually contribute to weight gain.

4. Chronic Stress Can Reduce Metabolism

Elevated cortisol levels cause a reduction in testosterone levels, as per studies.

A reduced level of testosterone causes a reduction in muscle mass, as testosterone is the hormone that is responsible for muscle maintenance. A reduced muscle mass will result in a reduced metabolism.

You burn around 150 calories per day less when you are chronically stressed. It may not seem a lot, but this will build up over a while and result in weight gain, especially when other factors are promoting weight gain too.

5. Chronic Stress Disturbs Our Sleep

It’s likely that even you have experienced times when something’s stressing your mind, causing you to lie in bed with thoughts racing in your mind, making it difficult for you to fall asleep.

While a few such instances once in a while may not cause any long-term effect (until you complete your sleep quota), when stress becomes a constant in our lives we also become chronically sleep deprived.

And this comes with an additional set of issues that are attributed to lack of sleep. One of these additional issues is weight gain, which results from increased ghrelin levels, reduced levels of leptin (hormone of satiety), and reduced insulin sensitivity— all of which grossly translates to more cravings.

However, this is not it, the less you sleep, the more stressed you will become. So, the sleep-stress cycle is a never-ending one, if not addressed and managed.

6. People Pay Less Attention to Self-Care When They Are Chronically Stressed

Self-care usually takes a back seat when we are stressed. It’s no longer a priority. So, you are likely to skip working out and take a general interest in your lifestyle.

So, scheduling out important things might help tackle this. Discipline over waiting for motivation works best in this case.

Some Other Facts:.

  • You are at a higher risk of experiencing more weight gain if you are already overweight or obese, as these groups of people are already in high insulin state resulting from insulin resistance.
  • Additionally, several studies say that women tend to lean on food and men lean towards alcohol and cigarettes when under chronic stress. This implies that women are more prone to weight gain when under chronic stress.

How Can You Prevent Weight Gain During Stressful Times?

1. Clean Out Your Home of All Sugary Food

Not buying packed, processed sugary food during periods of stress might help you reinforce healthy eating habits when you are chronically stressed. Being a stress eater, I can say that not having any unhealthy food is the best way to not eat them and the most effective way to prevent stress-eating.

Additionally, these are cravings, not actual hunger. So, if you don’t act on them they will go away. On the other hand, if you do end up eating don’t stress about it either. You can always work out and balance out the calorie intake.

As mentioned earlier, the brain do consume more energy when we are stressed. If you are performing any task that needs more focus/mental work, it would be a good idea to eat something to improve/maintain your performance. Your focus will be negatively affected with poor glucose levels in the system.

So, eating might not be a bad thing in every scenario. You can always eat healthy snacks rich in protein or healthy fats that will provide energy for a longer time, as opposed to simple carbohydrates. You just need to be cautions what you are eating and how much.

2. Try to Find Out What’s Causing You to Stress Out

The reason for your stress can be anything. It can be the stress around school or the pressure to earn more for your family. Whatever be the case, knowing what causes you to stress out easily is helpful because you can plan things accordingly.

For example, if you stress over exams, studying for exams from an early date will help you stay calm as the exams get near. Better planning and planning ahead for the things that stress you out easily will help you keep stress at bay, and will help prevent stress-related weight gain over time.

3. Try to Bring Stress Under Control

You can do this by various methods. Some of the ways you can relax are discussed in the section below. Bringing stress under control is the ultimate goal, as that will prevent stress-related issues like weight gain.

4. Sleep Well

Getting adequate sleep helps deal with stress better. It will also help control the associated increased ghrelin and lowered leptin levels.

An average adult needs 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night to stay healthy and for good performance. Don’t try to cut out on sleep to do more work. Because it will, in reality, affect your ability to work well.

Relaxation Techniques For Stress Relief

1. Deep Breathing Exercises

Taking control of your breath is an easy and effective method to calm yourself down, as your brain monitors your breathing rate to sense stressful conditions.

If you slow down your breathing rate, your brain perceives this as you being safe, and it responds by stopping the stress response.

Deep breathing exercises are so popular, as they are easy to perform, and are effective. In short, they are not just the hype; they do work. There are many different types of breathing exercises you can perform. But the easiest method is deep abdominal breathing. It is also known as vertical breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, 

What it means is that your abdomen should move (instead of your shoulders/chest moving up and down) while you breath. Take a deep breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and breath out over 7 seconds.

As a beginner, I recommend that you do it lying down, as it’s more easier to do in lying position in the beginning. But you can also do it in sitting position.

You can follow this 1 minute video to see how to perform diaphragmatic breathing.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. 

PMR is easy to perform as well. You will start by contracting a group of muscles, holding them for a few seconds in the contracted state and then relaxing the group of muscles– usually from the foot and up.

For example, you start by contracting your foot muscles (curling your toes), hold for a few seconds, and then relax. Then you move up to your calves and contract the calf muscles of both legs, maintain/hold the contraction for a few seconds, and then relax. Repeat this process going upwards— thighs, pelvis, abdomen, hands, arms, upper back, neck and lastly, your face. Studies prove PMR to be helpful for both stress relief, anxiety, panic attacks and muscle tightness.

It will take only a few minutes to perform and is effective in helping your relax.

Follow this video to see how to perform PMR.

3. Train Yourself To Bring Your Mind To The Present Moment

If your mind wanders a lot, you can consciously shift your mind to things around you. You can do that by focusing on the things you see, naming different body parts, noticing what sounds you can hear at that moment, etc.

I find this method helpful for breaking the habit of engaging with the thoughts racing in my mind. It is a great way to bring yourself back to the present moment.

All you have to do is: start naming the objects around you, some of the body parts, and what you hear or smell around you. Doing this will help break the habit of overthinking by breaking the chain of thoughts and bringing you to the present.

It works well for me. You will need to practice it for a while to stop overthinking completely. In the beginning, you may repeatedly drift back into your thoughts. That is okay; this happens when you are trying to break this habit. But with practice, you will get better at breaking your habit of overthinking.

4. Anything That Can Help You Relax Is Okay— Yoga, Exercise, Tai Chi, Walks Or Hobbies

You can also meditate to help yourself be in the present moment. The less overactive your mind will be, the less you will distress over things that exist in your mind.

Some other things that might help you relax are meditation, doing some relaxing activities like going for a walk or gardening, reading, and engaging in some activities.

Or, do nothing and sit comfortably in your favourite corner– doing nothing. Anything that helps you relax is fine as long as it doesn’t involve substances.

Exercising and yoga are few other things that will help you calm down and become more still. They also release feel-good hormones. 

5. Break The Habit Of Overthinking

One thing that helps me put a stop to my stress is to put a pause in my overactive mind actively engaged in overthinking. The way I stop the intervening thoughts that might cause me to overthink or stress is to write the overpowering thought down, and tell myself that I will think about it at a later time.

So, say, at lunchtime, I will revisit the stress-inducing thought again. Then I will take a look at what was causing me to overthink and I try to come up with a plan that might help me deal with the issue.

By doing this I can better focus on my work in the present and I also come back and deal with what was bothering me. This helps me break the pattern of overthinking.

You can do the same, or you can break your overthinking by diverting your mind to some other activity– like doing jumping jacks for 5 mins or engaging in a chore. But one way or the other, calming the overthinking mind is important to deal with chronic stress, as that’s usually what causes it. 

You Can Take Control of Your Stress Eating

A conscious effort is needed when it comes to both the prevention of stress eating and stress relief. Practice consciously acknowledging your negative patterns— be it comfort eating or overthinking— and try NOT to engage in the usual process of overthinking or breaking the thought process. It gets easier with practice.

What You Need To Remember About Stress And Weight Gain?

If you experience stress persistently and if you have gained weight, remember that stress management would be a vital part of your weight loss regime in this case.

In addition to consciously monitoring how much you eat, training yourself to eat healthy food and exercising, you need to work on de-stressing to lose weight. 

Please remember that studies suggest that stress management supports weight loss. Stress is a significant factor that causes weight gain and may make it difficult for you to lose weight. 

While we can’t escape stress completely (a certain degree of stress is healthy), we must learn how to de-stress and train ourselves to be in the present moment so that stress (i.e. distress) doesn’t overpower our lives.

You can continue to read more about how sleep affects weight and appetite here: Can Lack Of Sleep Cause Weight Gain?

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