Written by Jennie on July 26, 2016.

Can stress cause weight gain? 5 tips to stay calm and slim


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.

5 Tips to help you remain calm and stay slim

  • Practice sitting and breathing deeply and slowly. This is the first step of meditation. By doing this, when you ‘catch-yourself’ being stressed-out, you can begin to consciously change your breathing pattern. When you are stressed, your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. By consciously breathing more deeply and more slowly—without forcing your breath—then it conveys to your body that the stressful event has passed. This relaxes you and your body begins to reverse the chemical changes instigated by the stressful event.
  • Learn to eat more mindfully. When we are stressed, we often pay scant attention to what we are eating and so it is more likely that we will eat hurriedly, not chewing food properly and possibly eating more than intended too. So slow down. Take a breath. Look at the food you are about to eat and eat more mindfully.
  • Take a proper lunch-break and go for a quick walk. Too often office workers eat sandwiches at their desk. They check email, catch-up on social media and so they don’t really stop working. Taking even a short break can help clear your head, relax your mind and body and so allow stress levels to drop.
  • Add protein to your snacks. By adding good quality protein (such as; a hard boiled egg, nut butter or hummus with crudities, a scoop of whey protein with your favourite milk and some berries in a smoothie, etc). it helps stop your blood sugar levels going on the roller-coaster of highs and lows.
  • If you are going through a prolonged stressful time, consider supplementing with a good-quality multivitamin and mineral tablet. I personally believe that almost everyone would benefit by doing this as our fruit and vegetables, due to modern farming and long travel distances, no longer contain the amounts they once did. When stressed, our body uses up a lot more vitamins and minerals. Taking a daily tablet is a tiny step in the right direction to help your body deal with this. If you are taking other medication or have any medical condition, please check with your doctor or nutritionist before doing this.

As always, I would love to hear your ideas and tips on how you deal with stress and ways to remain calm and stay slim.