Fight, Flight, or Fat? How Stress can Lead to Weight Gain

Dr. Christopher McGowan
May 4, 2021

If looking in the mirror and seeing evidence of a few more pounds than you like makes you stressed, you are not alone. Being stressed about unexpected weight gain is easy enough to understand. What many people fail to realize is those extra pounds could be coming from stress itself. 

Can Stress Cause You to Gain Weight?

Stress and added body weight have a reciprocal relationship. Chronic stress can increase stress hormone levels, disrupt your sleep patterns, and even cause you to change your eating habits. All of these can lead to adding a few extra pounds. Many stressful situations at work or in the home can last for long periods of time, and as a result chronic stress has a strong correlation to obesity. 

How Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?

You may be able to tell the difference between an emotional stress and a physical threat, but your body cannot. Our bodies are hardwired to respond to threats and stresses in the same way no matter the source: by preparing for physical activity. This is part of the “fight or flight” response we have all probably heard of. Understanding how this is related to weight gain is perhaps less familiar to some. 

When you are stressed, your body prepares to defend itself or run from danger. This means your adrenal glands secrete adrenaline to help you prepare for whatever danger you are facing. As your blood sugar spikes, your body makes glucose available to fuel the fight it is sure is coming. 

After your body is convinced the threat is passed, your blood sugar levels crash, and your cortisol levels rise. Insulin levels rise sharply and your body starts telling you to replenish the calories it is sure you burned fighting off a threat or running for your life. This brings about the sudden cravings for sugary treats and fatty foods that often accompany periods of high stress.

The problem, of course, is that you may not have actually burned the calories your body thinks you did. Many stressors in our modern society are emotional or relational, and unlike the flight response your body interprets as needing to run for your life, dealing with stress in the workplace does not usually involve intense physical activity. With your body telling you to eat more than you need to, and the natural stress relief that can come from eating comfort foods, it is easy to see how stress can quickly lead to extra pounds showing up around your midsection. 

The effects of stress on your dietary habits can take many forms. The stereotypical binge eating scenario of someone powering through a tub of ice cream or polishing off a pizza is only one of the potential ways stress can affect your diet. Being overcommitted and busy can result in missing meals, or eating on the run. Not eating regularly can lead to eating more than you might at other times, especially late at night. Eating on the go can often lead to convenient but unhealthy options such as fast food. 

Even if your eating schedule is not disrupted by agravations in your life, the kind of food you eat might be. Research has shown that your willpower is reduced under stressful conditions. This only gets worse if you are not sleeping well. Add to this combination the not-so-subtle hint your body is giving you to reach for the sugar and carbohydrates when cortisol and insulin levels spike, and you have a recipe for dietary disaster. 

Another, sneakier way that stress can cause weight gain is by making it harder for you to stick to an exercise routine. Elevated levels of cortisol make it harder for your body to heal itself from the muscle breakdown associated with exercise. With exercise being an important part of healthy weight loss, injuries from working out, or the lowered capacity to push your body after sleeping poorly can reduce your ability and willingness to push harder during a workout, meaning you will burn fewer calories than you might otherwise. 

How do You Get Rid of Stress Weight Gain?

To reverse the weight gain associated with stress, you first need to determine whether the effects of stress are indeed causing your extra weight gain. Many different health issues such as thyroid conditions can cause disruptions to your metabolism that could be causing your new unwanted abdominal fat. If a stress response is at fault, stress management and possibly consulting a mental health professional will be part of the path back to successful weight loss. 

With chronic stressors in the picture, getting a handle on your stress eating is nearly always going to be part of the solution. Even if you are not engaging in obvious overeating that leads to belly fat, high cortisol levels can slow your metabolism so that your body is burning fuel less efficiently, and more of the food you eat will go directly to fat storage. Additionally, emotional eating is not usually healthy eating, with sugars and carb-heavy foods taking the place of the healthy foods we all know we should be eating. 

Getting rid of stress-related eating habits may have very little to do with directly modifying your diet. Lifestyle changes like maintaining a regular bedtime, releasing yourself from stressful commitments if you can, and addressing stressful relationships are all possible ways to start reducing your stress. 

Practicing mindfulness, yoga, mediation, or even prayer can all bring about reductions in your cortisol levels. For many people, engaging in regular exercise can also help, especially if it is outdoors. Spending time in nature has been proven to correlate strongly with lowered levels of stress hormones. If you are using exercise as a stress reduction technique, be sure not to overdo it. Intense workouts have been shown to potentially increase cortisol levels. 

The Health Effects of Being Overweight

Even if you are not yet heading toward the dangerous end of the body mass index, getting a handle on stress is essential for your health. Though you may not feel it in the short-term, high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones can have disastrous effects on your overall wellness in the long term. 

  • type 2 diabetes
  • heart disease
  • digestive problems
  • depression
  • high blood pressure
  • sleep deprivation
  • cognitive impairment
  • anxiety
  • stroke

If you have gained weight during the pandemic, you are certainly not alone. The added stress of the last year has reached nearly everyone. Even if you have not felt the effects directly, the ongoing uncertainty can take a toll. If you are seeing a higher number on the scale and are at a loss as to where those pounds came from, extra stress could be the answer. 

Whatever the cause of your stress, there is no reason to delay in getting a weight loss plan in place. The long-term effects of obesity are well documented and the dangers of being overweight only grow as you get older. If you are looking for ways to get started losing weight, diet and exercise are always going to be important, but taking steps to reduce chronic stress levels can also make a significant impact on your ability to lose weight. 

High levels of chronic stress, and the consequent lack of sleep that usually follows, can have a noticeable effect on your willpower. If stress eating has been a part of the picture that led to your weight gain, you may find it difficult to exercise the willpower to keep your eating habits in check, especially when your body is telling you to replenish calories you never burned.

For some people, a little help goes a long way. At True You, our medical nutrition therapy program exists to help people get started on the path to better eating habits. For others, physical intervention is the answer. This can take the form of minimally invasive procedures such as the ORBERA® Managed Weight Loss System that reduce the available volume of your stomach. 

Lowered body weight can have a positive effect on stress levels, which can in turn make it easier to lose more weight. If you are feeling like you are out of answers in how to shed unwanted pounds, request an appointment at True You today. There are many different paths to losing weight in a healthy manner, and choosing the right one can make all the difference.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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