How Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?



Stressing about not losing weight can negatively impact your weight loss success.

Stressing about not losing weight can negatively impact your weight loss success.

If you are eating right and exercising but not losing weight, there may be other factors at play including hormone imbalances or food intolerances. When we look at the many factors that can affect successful weight loss, nearly all relate to stress on the body. When our bodies are under chronic or excessive stress, we tend to maintain or gain weight rather than losing it due to disruption of the many mechanisms responsible for weight homeostasis.1 While some may initially lose weight under chronic stress, that weight loss becomes a further stressor which results in longer term health complications such as cardiovascular risk and reduced metabolic function.2

Many things that we consider normal in our modern lives are stressful to our bodies on a cellular level:

  • Not eating enough or eating too much
  • Exercising too much or not exercising enough
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Work, school, family, or relationship stress
  • Smoking
  • Excessive or binge drinking
  • Prescription medications
  • Hormonal birth control
  • Food intolerances or allergies
  • Financial concerns
  • Poor diet/high intake of processed foods or fast food

When we are under stress, whether it is acute or chronic, our bodies respond by initiating our “fight or flight” response. The fight or flight response is a series of reactions within our bodies that occurs in response to a threat, such as being chased by a predator. Unfortunately, our bodies respond the same whether the threat is that of a physical attack or an emotional one and whether the threat is real or perceived.

The fight or flight response starts with the hypothalamus receiving a message that you are being threatened in some way. The hypothalamus simultaneously sends a nerve signal down the spinal cord to the adrenal glands telling them to secrete epinephrine (adrenaline) and sends a signal to the pituitary gland which secretes a hormone, called ACTH, which tells the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. Epinephrine and cortisol both take action that will increase the energy available to muscles so you can fight your attacker or run from it. This energy is made available as glucose through glycogenolysis (breakdown of glycogen) and gluconeogenesis (synthesis of glucose from other substances.<sup<3

This increase in available energy is ideal if you are running from a threat. However, if you are sitting at your computer stressed out over work or school, your body will break down muscle and other tissues to synthesize glucose that you aren’t going to burn off. Your body will release insulin to bring glucose to your muscles but since you aren’t using them to flee your threat, they don’t need the energy and insulin will take the glucose to your ever-welcoming fat cells for storage.

Over the long term, chronic stress that causes this adrenal response can lead to insulin resistance syndrome, adrenal fatigue, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.4

Reduction of stressors through dietary changes, identification of food intolerances, reduction of environmental contaminants, and lifestyle changes are integral in reducing chronic stress. Practicing deep breathing, yoga, or meditation can help reduce stress levels or help you better cope with daily stress. Finally, if you feel stressed, brief exercise can help improve your mood, increase oxygen flow to your brain, and burn off some of the glucose created by your body’s response to the stress. So, next time you feel like yelling at your computer screen, take a few deep breaths to relax, then do 10 push ups, 25 body weight squats, or go for a 10 minute walk. Your body will thank you and your waistline may too.

1. Vianna, C. R. & Coppari, R. “A Treasure Trove of Hypothalamic Neurocircuitries Governing Body Weight Homeostasis.” Endocrinology 152.1 (2011): 11-18.

2.  Flak, J.N., Jankord, R.J., Solomon, M.B., Krause, E.G., Herman, J.P. “Opposing Effects of Chronic Stress and Weight Restriction on Cardiovascular, Neuroendocrine and Metabolic Function.” Physiology & Behavior 104.2 (2011): 228-234.

3. Saccà L, Vigorito C, Cicala M, Corso G, Sherwin RS. “Role of gluconeogenesis in epinephrine-stimulated hepatic glucose production in humans.” American Journal of Physiology 245.3 (1983): E294-302.

4. Innes KE, Vincent HK, Taylor AG. “Chronic stress and insulin resistance-related indices of cardiovascular disease risk, part I: neurophysiological responses and pathological sequelae.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 13.4 (2007): 46-52.

Categories: Lifestyle, Nutrition