Can stress cause weight gain?

Can stress cause weight gain

26 July 2016

Written by Jennie Bayliss

We are living in a world where stress is almost accepted as the norm. We work harder, faster and longer hours than ever before. Most people arrive home from work feeling tired, hungry and stressed. And when you are stressed, your body responds by releasing several hormones, and an unintended result of this can be weight gain. Don’t despair though: there are simple ways to counteract this. Let’s let’s first begin by looking at how stress can cause weight gain then discover ways to manage stress so you can remain calm and stay slim.

How your body responds to stress

Even though our stress today is likely to come from the sheer volume of work, or pressure from your boss, or tricky family situations, your body has not yet evolved to this new form of stress. Instead your body responds as it did for our ancient ancestors as it prepares to fight or run-away. It is known as the flight or fight response. And sometimes it also evokes the freeze response—when out of sheer panic you can’t move and become like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Our body considers stress as a threat to our survival and so to protect itself from imminent demise, our body instigates a series of hormonal changes to give us the best chance of surviving. I know this sounds dramatic, but whilst your mind can distinguish the levels of threat between a wild animal on the lose and an angry boss, your body can’t. So it responds as it always has done. It begins by releasing adrenaline. This increases your heart rate, raises blood pressure, and pumps more blood into the muscles of your arms and legs. It also puts you into a state of being hyper-alert so that your eyesight and hearing become more acutely attuned to what’s going around you. Your body also releases cortisol which helps pump more glucose into the blood stream, preparing your body for a surge of energy it perceives it will need to run or fight. And because your body considers survival is more important than your last meal, blood and resources are diverted away from digestive and immune systems.

How these changes effect weight gain

As your body pumps more blood into your limbs, your digestive system is left under-resourced. This can lead to a sluggish digestive system, and this can influence weight gain, but a more important factor is the on-going effect of cortisol which remains at a higher level even after the stress has passed. Cortisol makes us crave sugary foods to replace the energy it will have expected to have been used during this time. It is also to replace fat stores (as if we needed more!) which again comes from our ancient ancestry—rather than the fact that today food is widely available 24-7.

After the stress has passed, your body finally realises that your blood sugar levels are too elevated. Now insulin steps in to mop-up the excess blood sugar. Insulin has several options: it can convert and store the sugar in your liver or muscles or store it as body fat. Insulin is very good at its job of mopping up the excess sugar: so good it can cause our blood sugar levels to drop below the level they were at before the stressful event—which then triggers a craving for sugary food.

All of these synergistic changes are going on within our bodies all of the time as the body constantly endeavours to return the body to its optimum health: a process known as homeostasis. The body’s self-healing properties are truly remarkable.

When we live in a stressed state for long periods of time—and so many of us are living with constant, low-level stress—we so very easily gain weight because our digestive system has become sluggish and inefficient, our cortisol levels keep send out cravings for sugary food (or drink) and our insulin response is activated more frequently sending our blood sugar levels on a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Although our bodies are remarkably robust given what we put them through, please know that long-term stress can not only cause weight gain, but also have a detrimental effect on our health. A very high percentage of disease and illness is caused by stress, as is an increased propensity to getting Type 2 Diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and heart attacks. I don’t wish to scare you—but truly becoming less stressed is going to help you in so many ways. Following are some tips to help you do this.

Receive my in-depth articles

Reflections newsletter signup

You may also like