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Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

Written by
Doctor Lynn Yudofsky

Let’s face it: no matter the cause, stress is far from enjoyable. Sometimes it makes you feel wired, cranky, or anxious; other times, it’s the source of fatigue and depressive feelings.

And when you’re under a lot of stress for an extended period, you might start to notice weight gain that seems to come out of nowhere.

If you find yourself asking, “does stress cause weight gain?” you’re not alone. 

The short answer is yes. There are many causes of weight gain and stress is one of them. 

Stress can affect your appetite, your metabolism, and other bodily processes. Keep reading to discover the links between stress and weight gain, as well as ways to recognize and manage your stress.

The Link Between Stress and Unhealthy Habits

Stress related weight gain is real and more common than you might think. In fact, stress and weight gain often go hand in hand. 

When you’re stressed over a tight schedule and a full-to-the-brim to-do list, for example, healthy choices often give way to less-than-ideal options.

  • Stress can encourage unhealthy eating habits. Those prone to emotional eating may find themselves bingeing on sugary snacks. Others might take to eating out at fast food joints to save time. When anxiety makes it challenging to turn on the stove and cook a nutritious meal, it’s hard to stick to a healthy routine.
  • It can also make it difficult to exercise. Prolonged stress makes it hard to think about anything else, so the last thing you want to do is hit the gym. But since exercise can increase those feel-good endorphins that alleviate stress, missing out on a sweat session often compounds your stress-related issues.

Stress induced weight gain can create a sort of feedback loop, too. If you’re stressed about a lack of progress with your weight loss goals, the negative feelings might lead you to gain more weight, which can stress you out, which—you get the picture.

All this is to say that stress—be it financial, familial, or otherwise—can make weight loss an uphill battle.

And that’s before getting into the correlation between sleep, weight gain, and stress.

Can Stress Cause Weight Gain Without Overeating?

There’s more to stress related weight gain than what you see on the surface.

Even if you avoid all junk food and maintain healthy habits during periods of high stress, you can still end up gaining weight. That’s because there are hormonal changes that occur inside your body when you’re stressed. 

These biological changes can cause moderate hormonal weight gain—even without overeating. Here’s how.

The Science Behind Stress Weight Gain

When we experience psychological stress, our adrenal glands produce more of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. A perfectly normal reaction takes place, triggering the burst of energy and strength that comes with the “fight-or-flight” feeling.

But when too much of the stress hormone cortisol is released continuously, it can create some undesirable effects.

  • After the initial burst of energy—and increased appetite—that comes with a stress-related cortisol spike, the body settles into a state of energy conservation.
  • When you’re constantly on high alert, the resulting elevated cortisol levels can slow down your metabolism. This is an effort to keep you charged and ready to take on whatever is stressing you out.
  • Since a slower metabolism burns fewer calories, it becomes easier to gain weight, even when eating normally. But, there are actually ways on how to restart your metabolism.

Cortisol and insulin are also intimately related. Because cortisol causes an increase in blood sugar levels as a mechanism to draw energy, a body under constant stress also produces more insulin. Too much insulin for too long can lead to insulin resistance, which means your body struggles to process blood sugars. Instead, it stores them in fat cells, once again causing you to gain weight.

On the topic of fat, high cortisol levels can ultimately cause extra weight to be deposited in the stomach area. 

Abdominal adipose tissue (a fancy name for stomach or abdominal fat) has more cells per mass unit when compared to other tissue. As such, these cells contain more cortisol receptors, causing excess fat to be stored near the abdomen at a higher rate than elsewhere in the body. This so-called “visceral fat” is linked to:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Weight gain

These are just some of the ways that stress can cause problems at a hormonal level. When you combine these factors with more visible signs of stress like overeating and sleep deprivation, it’s clear that stress management should be a top priority.

Identifying Stress: Signs and Symptoms

One of the first steps in combating stress and stress-induced weight gain is learning to identify it. 

Sometimes it’s easy enough to tell, but other times, you’ll need to look out for these signs. They include:

  • Muscle tension — We tend to clench our muscles when stressed, especially our jaw, neck, and shoulders. If those muscle groups feel tight, you might be stressing about something subconsciously.
  • Anger or irritability — Feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day life can put us in an irritable state. Lashing out at friends or family without warning is a telltale sign of stress.
  • Upset stomach — Afflictions like bloating, diarrhea, cramps, and constipation are known to be associated with stress. If your stomach feels off and you haven’t eaten anything out of the ordinary, it could be stress-related.

Stress manifests itself in other physical and emotional ways, including:

  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Use of drugs and alcohol as a coping method
  • Fatigue
  • Losing focus or motivation

On its own, a symptom may not indicate stress. But if you encounter several of the above signs as lasting issues, it might be time to address the stressors in your life.

Ways to Manage Stress

Can stress make you gain weight? The clear answer is yes.

But there’s no magic wand to completely eliminate stress from your life. Psychological stress is an unavoidable part of modern existence (with deadlines, relationships, and bills to pay), but it also serves a biological function.

Still, when you feel too stressed for too long, you need to take steps to mitigate that feeling. Otherwise, your health can be affected. These are some of our favorite ways to minimize day-to-day stress.

Rest & Relaxation

Did you know that sleep and weight loss are correlated? When you’re stressed about due dates, resting can seem counterproductive. But a good night’s sleep will leave you feeling recharged and ready to tackle anything. Sleep is fundamental to bodily function, as it refills your energy and repairs muscle tissues—so don’t skip out on it.

Similarly, taking a moment for yourself is essential. Relaxing—even for a short time—can refresh your mind, making you more efficient at the task ahead. When the stress starts to pile on, consider spending half an hour reading, walking, talking to a supportive friend, or doing anything that allows you to unwind.

Meditation & Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness are ways to check in with your current state, and they can be excellent stress reduction tools.

  • Meditation is the practice of focused concentration. It can be guided or self-led. Either way, a short meditation session can help you clear your mind and leave you feeling renewed. Other potential benefits include anxiety management, decreased blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health.
  • Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves honing in on yourself and making a judgment-free assessment. Looking inward and being mindful of your situation can help you pinpoint the stressors in your life, allowing you to overcome them.
Exercise

Exercising releases endorphins, which are “feel-good” signals to your brain. So not only does regular physical exercise reduce the negative emotions from stress, but it also helps to counteract some of the other stress symptoms like digestive and cardiovascular issues.

If you aren’t up for hitting the gym, pick a moderate physical activity that is pleasurable, whether it’s:

  • Gardening
  • Taking a walk
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Yoga
Socialize

To put it simply, happiness can alleviate stress symptoms. With that in mind, socializing with friends and family members that make you happy is a terrific way to combat stress.

On top of the obvious effects on mood and general well-being, studies have shown that positive thinking can cause a dip in cortisol levels. So, surround yourself with people that make you think positively and watch your stress melt away.

Plan Ahead

Much of the anxiety and stress in our lives can be tied back to a full plate of responsibilities. That means that thorough planning can help to eliminate some of our daily stress.

If you know you have a busy week coming up, try planning out each day and what you need to complete. 

Some people find a planner or calendar helps them keep track. Ultimately, if you try to segment out your time—and stop yourself from procrastinating too much—you can lower those deadline-induced stress levels.

How to End Stress Weight Gain

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply embrace a worry-free existence? Unfortunately, removing stress from your life entirely is easier said than done. Taking the time to manage stress helps with some parts of your weight loss journey, but as you can see, there are so many factors at play.

With that in mind, the best way to get rid of stress induced weight gain is to come up with a holistic plan that tackles every part of weight gain at the same time. That’s where we come in.

Found is a lasting weight care program that relies on modern science to help you see results. By focusing on multiple contributors to  your overall healthFound puts you on the path towards healthy, happy living.

Want to see how our combination of community support, individual health coaching, and prescription medication can jumpstart your weight care journey? Take the Found quiz today!

If you ever find that your level of stress becomes overwhelming, it is recommended you reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. Below please find a list of general resources:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)- helpline: 1-800-950-6264. If in a crisis text NAMI to 741741 for 24/7 confidential free crisis counseling https://www.nami.org/Home
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1800-273-TALK
  • Also in case of emergency or if any patient feels unsafe they should call 911 or go to the nearest ER.

 

Sources:

Mayo Clinic. Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress. 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469 

Orlando Health. How Too Much Stress Can Cause Weight Gain (and What to Do About It).  

https://www.orlandohealth.com/content-hub/how-too-much-stress-can-cause-weight-gain-and-what-to-do-about-it 

University of California, San Francisco. Blood Sugar & Other Hormones. 

https://dtc.ucsf.edu/types-of-diabetes/type2/understanding-type-2-diabetes/how-the-body-processes-sugar/blood-sugar-other-hormones/ 

NCBI. Is visceral obesity a physiological adaptation to stress? 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14618117/ 

Mental Health America. Rest, Relaxation And Exercise

https://www.mhanational.org/rest-relaxation-and-exercise 

NCBI. Positive affect and health-related neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and inflammatory processes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1088362/
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