How Can Stress Cause Weight Gain

by Rakib Sarwar, RPh
Published on December 25, 2019

Have you ever wondered whether you are gaining weight because of stress? It is not so unlikely, especially if your diet and lifestyle did not change and you noticed more pounds on the scale. Stress and weight gain are connected.

Let’s learn more about stress and how it affects your health, weight, and metabolism. 

What is stress?

Today, more and more people are talking about their extremely stressful lifestyle. It seems that we are all under stress. Is that right, or do we exaggerate? Do we know what stress is in general or are we just using that term because it’s “trendy”?

It is true that we are living a hectic lifestyle. There are great expectations at work, at home, with friends and family. Imperatives regarding professional performance and financial issues are exceptionally strict and demanding. In addition, technological and information stress that is everywhere around us significantly affects our wellbeing.

Moreover, there are many levels of personal stress. Our relationships with loved ones, spouse or partner, boss, family, etc. can be stressful from time to time. If one does not develop strong coping mechanisms, all these factors can become overwhelming. As a result, one’s hormonal status, sugar levels in the blood, blood pressure, metabolism, sleep order, and general physical and mental health can be jeopardized.

However, we still didn’t answer the question: “What is stress?” Stress is a psychological and physiological response of a person to stimulus/anxiety of a different origin (1). Usually, the stimuli are divided into internal and external. Internal stressors or stimuli are our own thoughts, feelings or body sensations (muscle or skin tingling, heart beating, shortness of breath, headache, etc.), and the external stimuli are numerous and diverse (problems at work, partnership, existential problems, deadlines, conflicts, various failures, traffic jams, bad weather, etc.). 

What causes stress? Stressors and types of stress

When defining stress and stressors, we must point out that the key element is the person’s individual, personal experience about the nature of that particular stressful event, i.e. whether it is dangerous or not.

This personal perspective is crucial because there is currently no consensus on either the quality or the number of stressors. This means that two people of the same age, sex, education, and social status, who are similarly educated, do similar work, and have similar life goals, do not necessarily have to have the same stressors, but also don’t have to have the same reaction to a particular stressor.

Stress is divided into:

  1. Distress. It’s the stress we’re fighting against. If it lasts, it leads to psychological suffering. Prolonged exposure to distress or shorter exposure to the distress of very high intensity can lead to harmful consequences for physical and mental health. 
  2. Eustress. It is a type of “useful” stress that motivates us and encourages us to achieve our goals.

In this article, we want to deal with distress, i.e. the harmful, negative one, and its consequences on one’s health, including weight gain in particular. Let’s learn a bit more about distress to be able to understand how it leads to weight gain and how we can overcome it.

Distress (harmful stress) can be:

  1. Acute: It lasts for several days, the triggers can be different (various short-term interpersonal conflicts, loss of a certain amount of money, or failure to achieve an important goal, short deadlines for completing an assignment). Symptoms are very intense, especially those that indicate physical suffering. It rarely leads to serious health conditions but could cause problems in some cases (2).
  1. Chronic: It lasts for a long time, namely for months or years and is therefore difficult to recognize. The person has the impression that it has always been that way, that living always used to feel so and that it has always been an integral part of life. This kind of stress is most often associated with great demands at work, severe illness, partner or family problems. Symptoms are low in intensity, but they last for a long time and can therefore seriously impair health and lead to some of the psychosomatic diseases (2). 

Symptoms of stress

In some cases, it is very easy to recognize that you are under stress. However, other cases, especially referring to chronic stress, are more difficult to detect. There are many different symptoms of stress which are categorized in the following way:

  • emotional symptoms,
  • behavioral symptoms, 
  • cognitive symptoms, 
  • physiological symptoms (physical reactions).

Emotional symptoms of stress include unhealthy negative emotions, which imply psychological suffering, motivate poor behavior, cause mistakes in thinking and physiological symptoms of acute stress reactions. Therefore, negative emotion is a key symptom of stress. If there are no “unhealthy” emotions, there are no other symptoms of stressful reactions. Unhealthy emotions are always the first symptoms of stress and all other symptoms are emotional followers. Most commonly, these emotional symptoms are described as tension, irritability, feelings of helplessness, insecurity or depression.

The symptoms of stress seen in a person’s behavior are identified as various self-exposing or self-destructive behaviors. Some of them are in the function of reducing the psychological suffering of the unhealthy negative emotions (excessive use of alcohol), use of psychoactive substances and drugs, excessive smoking, excessive sleeping, and eating, delaying the tasks which should be done immediately, etc. These are behavioral manifestations of psychological suffering (insomnia, loss of appetite), and very frequently self-destructive behaviors in the social sphere (initiation of conflicts and aggression, verbal or physical, passive behavior or social isolation).

Cognitive stress symptoms manifest themselves as mental blocking (“empty head” syndrome), difficulty in making decisions, impulsive decision-making, as an attempt to solve the problem immediately, without thinking about possible better solutions, poor concentration, etc.

Physiological symptoms of stress are actually ways of physical suffering. They are often the first symptoms we notice. These signs are clear but often misinterpreted. They are attributed to other diseases or phenomena (climate changes, poor weather, a drop of sugar levels in the blood, blood pressure issues, poor sleep, etc.). Most often, they occur as the stiffness of the neck muscles, headaches, back pain, increased sweating, tightness in the chest or heart beating, bowel disorders (more frequently diarrhea than constipation), high blood pressure, constant fatigue, etc.

Symptoms of stress can vary from day to day or during the day. Sometimes, a person is aware of only one symptom, and sometimes it is overwhelmed with numerous physiological symptoms and has pronounced symptoms of mental suffering. Usually, the symptoms of psychological suffering are vague and the person misinterprets them as being nervous, having a bad day, consuming a lot of coffee, etc.

Diseases and conditions most commonly associated with stress are:

  • Cardiovascular diseases, 
  • Asthma, 
  • Hormonal disorders,
  • Diabetes,
  •  Psoriasis,
  •  Migraine and tension headaches,
  • Digestive disorders,
  •  Depression,
  •  Insomnia,
  • Weight gain (3).

How stress affects weight?

Scientists have been researching the link between stress and weight gain. They found that there are several ways in which prolonged exposure to stress leads to weight gain and even obesity. Those include the activity of cortisol hormone (stress hormone) and metabolism disorders. 

1. Stress and cortisol

Cortisol is a hormone excreted by the adrenal gland. It belongs to the glucocorticoid hormone group because it has an effect on increasing blood glucose concentrations. It participates in regulating the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat, and proteins, plays a role in stress reactions and inflammatory processes, and, to a different extent, acts on numerous organ systems in the human body.

Cortisol is excreted in response to mental or physical stress and is therefore often referred to as a “stress hormone” (1). 

Cortisol is an important immune regulator, i.e. immunosuppressant. This activity was used to make different drugs and is important in many allergic reactions and inflammatory processes.

Cortisol reduces the secretion of sodium from the body, while it accelerates the excretion of potassium. This results in hypertension often associated with stress.

An interesting negative role of cortisol refers to brain aging. It has been found that cortisol selectively destroys neurons in the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. People exposed to stress are deconcentrated, tense, anxious.

The biggest problem arises when the cortisol level is chronically elevated. Our body is constantly signaling that a full range of defense mechanisms at the biochemical level is in danger and this ultimately leads to the undesirable consequences of high cortisol levels: increased blood glucose level, elevated blood pressure, impaired thyroid function, heartburn, menstrual cycle disorder, obesity, and especially accumulation of fat deposits around the waist, lower testosterone levels, reduced muscle tissue volume, mood disorder, depression, etc.

A person who suffers from high levels of cortisol feels an increased hunger, a desire for sweets and salty food, cannot relax, cannot get rid of a sense of inner anxiety, euphoria, insomnia, and excessive sweating. There are always negative thoughts, irrational fears, and a sense of constant “need for action”. 

In addition, high levels of cortisol encourage the storage of fat at places where it is easy to use it, such as fat deposits around the waist (1). After a long period of exhaustion of the adrenal gland, the phase of reduced cortisol levels in the body follows, as well as the reverse order of its excretion: higher levels of cortisol during the night and low cortisol levels in the morning.

In later stages of prolonged exposure to stress, cortisol levels can oscillate from high to low levels, sometimes even within a few hours of the same day. Namely, low cortisol levels are a consequence of long-term elevated levels of cortisol and the last phase of exposure to over-stressed situations. This means that your organization is exhausted.

Among the consequences of low cortisol levels are electrolyte problems, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, bone loss and possible fractures, and burn-out syndrome.

Such a condition ruins the general body balance and losing weight can become extremely difficult. Moreover, gaining weight despite not eating too much food can occur after prolonged exposure to stress. 

2. Stress and metabolism

Stress heavily affects one’s metabolism (1). Slow metabolism directly leads to weight gain. Stress is not only uncomfortable; it is also ruinous to our metabolism. As we have already explained, stress causes cortisol hormone secretion. As a result, your body begins to store fat and somehow becomes “silent” – it does not perform its functions as usual. All this leads to a slowdown in metabolism. Slow metabolism opens the gate towards weight gain. 

How to prevent and overcome stress?

In order to overcome stress, we must first be aware of the fact that we are under stress. To successfully diagnose a stress reaction, the following rules should be followed:

  • Pay attention to the signals coming from your body and mind,
  • Analyze your thoughts, feelings, and actions,
  • Determine WHY you think, feel and behave the way you do.

Only after the stress reaction is properly diagnosed and the stressor(s) is/are identified, we can start the fight against stress.

Strategies for coping with stress are various. First of all, you must know that not every stress is harmful. Problems in life are both inevitable and necessary for a person to grow and develop in a psychological sense.

However, when the effects of stressors are endangering your physical and mental health, you must fight against stress. Otherwise, it will lead you to serious mental and physical conditions.

Strategies to combat stress:

  • elimination of stressors
  • changing perspectives and reaction to stress from unhealthy to healthy
  • alleviating the stress response.

Eliminating the stressor(s) is the most appropriate way to combat stress and should be used whenever possible (4).

Unfortunately, a very small number of stressors can be completely eliminated. The problem with this type of struggle is that a person dealing with stress does not see that he/she has the potential to eliminate the stressor and end the stressful situation. There are two common mistakes:

The situation is not under one’s control, and the person thinks it is.

In this case, the person persistently tries to solve the problem that is, at that particular moment, unsolvable or the solution is not in his/her hand. Instead of accepting the given situation, which is, in this case, a healthy reaction, the person continues to be mentally and physically exhausted as he/she is constantly trying to find a solution in order to reduce the initial suffering. This pattern is often seen in depressive disorders that are accompanied by impulsive attempts to solve the problem.

The situation is under one’s control, and the person thinks it is not.

In this case, the person has an altered perception of the situation under the influence of strong blocking emotions. As he/she is overwhelmed by the symptoms of stress, he/she does not see the solution to the problems that are in his/her absolute control. Also, the person can sometimes see the solutions but not know how to get to them. This situation is often accompanied by a tremendous amount of anxiety. The person is blocked and does not see a way to resolve the situation or cannot choose the right solution from a multitude of solutions.

Changing the perspective and reaction to stress from unhealthy to healthy is the most effective and the best possible way to combat stressors in the long-term.

A number of techniques are used to relieve stress, but they need to be understood as tools or aids. If we make a parallel with the disease, relieving the stress response is the treatment of symptoms, and the change in personal philosophy is the treatment of the cause of the disease.

To relieve the symptoms of stress, we can rely on: 

  1. relaxation techniques
  2. healthy lifestyle
  3. social support (4).
  1. Relaxation techniques

Relaxation of the muscles and proper, diaphragmatic breathing can greatly reduce the mental component of the tension (4). The stress we feel has a psychological and physiological background. When we eliminate the physiological component of the tension, the brain automatically registers it and the psychological tension decreases. That’s why we feel more comfortable after a massage.

  1. Healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle involves balanced activity during the day, healthy sleeping habits and balanced nutrition (consuming small portions frequently during the day, eating healthy foods). If a person completes mostly physical tasks during his/her working hours, it is recommended to relax with some mental activity, such as reading or listening to music and vice versa. This ensures the balance between physical and mental activity during the day and directly contributes to healthy sleep.

It is known that good sleep enables tolerating even a very stressful life (4). Therefore, it is recommended to avoid consumption of drinks with caffeine at least 4 hours before going to bed, respecting a certain ritual before going to sleep, and going to bed at about the same time every night.

Spending time in nature is also a very important segment of a healthy lifestyle. Hectic urban and built environment is mentally tiring and a weekend in the forest, by the lake, or in the mountains can do wonders for your mind and soul.

It is also necessary to find adequate harmony between the business, family, various personal desires, and their realization possibilities. Trying to find relaxation modes, proper nutrition, physical activity, sleep, socializing with positive people as much as possible, reduced intake of psychostimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, and other “keep alerted” products are a must. Folic acid, vitamin B5, omega 3, vitamin C are among the nutrients that can also reduce stress-induced cortisol levels and can be found in foods such as fish, legumes, whole grains, sunflower seeds, fruit, and vegetables.

  1. Social support

Social support involves talking about problems with a specialist, a friend, or a therapist, socializing, avoiding “negative” people, and laughing a lot. It is good to take a look at the problem from someone else’s perspective. Spending time with family, friends, and pets can be a healing experience. A sense of security reduces the sense of helplessness. 

Avoiding people with negative attitude and energy is one of the most important aspects of alleviating the response to stress. Socializing with such people often becomes a new stressor. 

The Bottom Line

Stress and weight gain are closely related. Stress heavily affects all bodily functions and systems. First of all, stress triggers the secretion of the stress hormone – cortisol. Cortisol then opens the doors to various conditions, such as increased blood pressure, sugar level disbalance, a different way of storing fat in our body, and changes one’s metabolism. All of these reactions to stress are leading to weight gain.

That’s why you should implement various relaxation techniques to alleviate the effects of stress. If you are under stress for a longer period of time, ask for professional help of your medical care provider or therapist.

References:

  1. Scott KA, Melhorn SJ, Sakai RR. Effects of Chronic Social Stress on Obesity. Curr Obes Rep. 2012 Mar;1(1):16-25. doi: 10.1007/s13679-011-0006-3. PubMed PMID: 22943039; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3428710. Found online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428710/
  2.   Van der Valk ES, Savas M, van Rossum EFC. Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals? Curr Obes Rep. 2018 Jun;7(2):193-203. doi: 10.1007/s13679-018-0306-y. PubMed PMID: 29663153; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5958156. Found online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5958156/
  3.   Block JP, He Y, Zaslavsky AM, Ding L, Ayanian JZ. Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2009 Jul 15;170(2):181-92. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwp104. Epub 2009 May 22. PubMed PMID: 19465744; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2727271. Found online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2727271/
  4.   Xenaki N, Bacopoulou F, Kokkinos A, Nicolaides NC, Chrousos GP, Darviri C. Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial. J Mol Biochem. 2018;7(2):78-84. Epub 2018 Oct 3. PubMed PMID: 30568922; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6296480. Found online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6296480/

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