Weight Loss
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6 minute read

Stress and weight gain – how is it linked?

Written by
Reviewed by
Dr Joseph Santos

If there’s one thing everyone will experience in life, it’s stress. Stress is a normal response to a new or challenging situation and sometimes it can even be a good thing. When faced with a challenge, sometimes stress hormones can help you stay alert and rise to the occasion to fix the problem

However, when we’re overwhelmed with stress or we can’t calm down after a stressful situation, it can become a problem. In a 2015 survey, 35% of Australians reported having a significant level of distress (a negative stress response) in their lives. 26% said they had above normal levels of anxiety symptoms. 

High levels of stress can negatively impact both our physical and mental health. There is also a strong link between excess stress and weight gain. 

How can stress cause weight gain?

When we’re stressed, we go into ‘flight or fight’ mode. This means our body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream to give us extra energy. This increases our blood pressure, heart and breathing rates

After the stress has subsided, our adrenaline and cortisol levels gradually return to normal. However, when we’re experiencing regular stress, these hormone levels remain elevated. In particular, you can experience an overload of cortisol which can affect the food you choose to eat and how your body breaks it down.

What’s the link between cortisol and stress weight gain?

When you’re under chronic stress, it’s hard to make healthier choices. One study linked elevated cortisol levels with increased appetite which could lead to weight gain. 

Hunger associated with elevated cortisol levels can also affect the kinds of food you eat. When you’re more stressed, you’re more likely to eat ‘comfort foods’ which are higher in fat and sugar. Then compounding the problem, your body metabolises these foods slower which can increase your stress related weight gain. 

Higher levels of cortisol are also linked to abdominal weight gain which is typically harder to shift and can increase your risk of a heart attack.  

Can stress and lack of sleep cause weight gain?

There are other ways stress can cause weight gain. One survey found that people that report higher stress levels slept an average of 6.2 hours per night compared to 7.1 hours for people with lower stress levels. 

There are many other ways that getting less sleep can influence weight gain. When we’re tired, we’re more likely to skip exercise and not make the best food choices. There are also chemical sensors that get disrupted when we sleep less. It can increase our hunger hormones so we eat more which can lead to significant weight gain.

What are some other common unhealthy habits that we do when we’re stressed?

When we’re stressed, some people may be more likely to adopt unhealthy habits, including:

Overeating

The increased cortisol in your blood can often cause you to eat more than you usually would. One survey found 43% of women and 32% of men report overeating or eating unhealthy meals due to stress. 

Skipping meals

Stress can also have the opposite effect. When you’re focused on something else, you may not sit down to a main meal and instead graze on unhealthy snacks. 

Not exercising

Although exercise is an effective stress management technique, 39% of people in one survey said they skipped physical activity when they were stressed. 

Drinking, smoking, gambling and taking recreational drugs

Of the Australians who reported severe levels of distress in a 2015 survey, 61% drink alcohol, 41% gamble, 40% smoke and 31% take recreational drugs to manage their stress.

What are some other health impacts from stress? 

It’s not just gaining weight. Stress can affect both your physical and mental health. Some potential impacts from stress can include:

  • Rapid breathing which can affect lung conditions such as asthma 
  • Increased blood pressure can lead to heart problems
  • Gut problems, reflux or possible bloating.
  • A risk of type 2 diabetes when the body produces extra glucose to give you energy
  • Reduced sexual desire which can lead to fertility problems
  • Fatigued immune system which can lead to increased infections
  • Increased oil production which can lead to acne or hair loss

Chronic stress can also alter your mental health and can be a risk factor for developing depression

What are some ways you can reduce stress in your life? 

If you’re wanting to reduce stress and the chance of stress related weight gain, here are some things to try. 

1. Exercise more

There is a lot of research that shows that regular exercise can reduce perceived stress in your life. Not only does it reduce stress but exercise can reduce your blood pressure and help improve your quality of life. 

2. Relaxation techniques

There are many evidenced based relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises and yoga which can help you reduce stress. 

3. Get more sleep 

Adults between 25 and 64 should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you could try to adopt these sleep habits.  

4. Do something you enjoy

Doing something that makes you happy is one excellent way of relieving stress. Some popular ways of relieving stress according to one survey include watching television or movies, spending time with friends or family, listening to music and reading. 

5. Talk to someone 

If you’re experiencing too much stress or these techniques aren’t working, it could be time to talk to a professional. Speak with your doctor about whether talking to a counsellor or psychologist might help. 

How is stress-related weight gain diagnosed?

It’s important to talk to your doctor about whether your weight gain is stress related. They will talk to you about your medical history and may also do other investigations to see if you have any other health concerns. 

If you’re ready to lose weight, a plan from Rosemary Health might help. We have doctor guided weight loss programs that are all online and easy to access. Regardless of your lifestyle and goals, we can design a plan to suit you.

References
  1. Healthdirect.com.au - Stress
  2. Australian Psychological Society - Stress and Wellbeing Survey 2015
  3. Gordan R, Gwathmey JK, Xie LH. Autonomic and endocrine control of cardiovascular function. World J Cardiol 2015; 7(4): 204-214 [PMID: 25914789 DOI: 10.4330/wjc.v7.i4.204]
  4. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior (2011)
  5. Food selection changes under stress (2006)
  6. Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity (2016)
  7. Central adiposity and cortisol responses to waking in middle-aged men and women (2004)
  8. Waist-hip ratio as a predictor of myocardial infarction risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis
  9. American Psychological Association - Stress and Sleep
  10. American Psychological Association - Stress and Sleep
  11. Associations of short sleep duration with appetite‐regulating hormones and adipokines: A systematic review and meta‐analysis (2020)
  12. Acute partial sleep deprivation increases food intake in healthy men (2010)
  13. American Psychological Association - Stress Report
  14. American Psychological Association - Stress Report
  15. Healthdirect.com.au - Stress
  16. Bloating and Abdominal Distension: Clinical Approach and Management (2019)
  17. Psychological stress and disease. JAMA, 298, 1685-1687 (2007)
  18. A Role for Exercise in Attenuating Unhealthy Food Consumption in Response to Stress (2018)
  19. A Role for Exercise in Attenuating Unhealthy Food Consumption in Response to Stress (2018)
  20. Australian Sleep Foundation - How much sleep do you really need?
  21. Australian Psychological Society - Stress and Wellbeing Survey 2015

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