Stress and Weight Gain

I typically define stress as a reaction that happens inside our bodies in response to something happening outside our bodies. That stress trigger could be anything from being chased by a bear, to having a big project at work, to struggling with something particularly worrisome that won’t leave our minds. Whether it’s a physical trigger or a psychological trigger, our bodies react the same way.

When we are in a stressed out state, our “fight or flight system” is activated, also known as our sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, our adrenal glands start releasing the hormone cortisol to help our bodies do everything they can to fight off the threat. Here are a few of those specific reactions:

  • elevate blood sugar
  • raise heart rate and blood pressure
  • suppressthe immune system
  • prevent urination and bowel emptying

These are are normal things to happen to us (and arguably beneficial at times.) However, we don’t want to be stuck in this state for a long time. If we are, our bodies start to break down, and we undergo metabolic changes that are really unhealthy. These include:

  • increased susceptibility to illness
  • increased abdominal fat
  • decreased thyroid function
    • fatigue
    • weight gain
    • dry skin
    • thinning hair
  • osteoporosis
  • heart disease and cancer
  • constipation and irritable bowel syndrome

The way that cortisol leads to weight gain is by binding to receptors on immature fat cells in the abdomen. When cortisol binds, they become activated and start maturing. The fat cells in the abdomen have more receptors for cortisol than fat cells in other parts of the body, which is why they tend to grow more preferentially than other areas. Additionally, abdominal fat cells are metabolically active, which means they produce hormones that create a number of other body responses, including the production of more cortisol. The cycle continues.

So, what can you do to prevent the health problems that result from excess abdominal fat?

First and foremost, reduce your level of stress. Whether that means setting boundaries at work or in relationships, or seeking out counseling to help learn coping skills, taking care of your mental health is absolutely important.

In addition to external factors, there are certain lifestyle behaviors that increase our bodies’ stress response. An unbalanced diet with poor blood sugar control, excess consumption of caffeine and/or alcohol, and not getting enough sleep are all really influential. Research has shown that just one night of not sleeping enough can increase the body’s stress response by 45%.

  • Aim for 8 hours of sleep
  • Try not to exceed 2 cups (6 oz each) of coffee daily
  • Include protein in every meal and snack to balance blood sugar
  • Limit alcoholic beverages to 1-2 drinks/week for women; 3-4 drinks/week for men

Obviously, stressors in life come and go, but it’s our daily habits that have the biggest influence on our health for the long-term. Try to make small changes and sustain them rather than making big changes that are overwhelming. Sometimes, less is more!


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