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5 Ways Stress Can Cause Weight Gain

Author: Taylor Bathel

You’ve revamped your lifestyle, yet still, the scale is stuck. Have you addressed your stress? It may seem like a stretch, but hear us out. Stress is often thought of as emotional tension, though it’s effect on the physical body, and potentially weight, is just as prominent. 

A little stress is good in life. It can help you run from tigers, or on a modern level, meet your work deadlines. It’s when a little stress turns into chronic stress that things turn funky – especially in the  hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 

The HPA axis is stimulated by emotional stress. It sets into motion a series of physical changes that are meant to protect you, like a surge in the hormone cortisol to create the “flight or fight” response. When the “threat” is cleared, cortisol should drop. With chronic stress, the body is in a perpetual state of heightened hormones, and over time, that may result in a range of hormone dysfunctions.

Remember, #NoomNerds: correlation does not imply causation. The stress-weight connection is complicated!

That being said, here are 5 ways stress may impact your weight:

1. Stress increases cortisol

You’ve met cortisol: the stress hormone. Constant cortisol elevation can lead to cortisol dysfunction, and elevated cortisol levels are often associated with excess abdominal fat storage. Abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, is the most dangerous kind, as it affects the vital organs in your core.

2. Stress impacts your hunger and fullness cues

Cortisol has a domino effect on a number of appetite- and fat-regulating hormones, including leptin and insulin. Leptin controls your hunger and satiety by telling your brain that you’re full. Insulin helps your body break down sugar from your blood into energy, which manages your blood sugar levels and thus hunger. Increased cortisol released from the HPA axis is related to resistance of leptin and insulin, meaning the body stops responding to their signals. And ultimately meaning, you can feel much hungrier and eat much more. 

3. Stress is associated with greater calorie intake

In both men and women, increased perceived stress and cortisol levels are correlated with increased calorie consumption. Whether one overeats because of a hormone imbalance, or because a learned psychological behavior connecting food with comfort is unknown.

4. Stress impacts your brain’s reward system

It’s theorized that food can have addictive and dependent traits, as tasty food can stimulate the brain’s reward system by releasing opioid. More so, opioid release can shut down an HPA axis stimulation, so theoretically, chronic stress can trigger overeating as a way to a way to cope with an overactive HPA axis. Plus, in this model, eating makes you happy, which stressed people strive for.

5. Stress shifts your mindset and priorities

When you have 99 stress-y problems, sometimes the last thing you can do is care for your health. You may experience decision fatigue, a drop in motivation, or a drop in self-efficacy. All of these shifts from your health habits can inevitably cause weight gain or stagnation. 

The bottom line: Stress is biologically rooted and there might be a biological mechanism at play that objectively connects high stress levels to weight gain. Even so, the evidence is strong enough to say that chronic stress is well-worth managing, whether for your weight or your mental well-being. Stress is inevitable in life, and you control how you respond to it. How are you managing your stress?

Start managing your stress today with these foolproof guides: