Can Stress Alone Make You Gain Weight?

Have you ever wondered if stress alone can make you gain weight? The answer to that question is, perhaps surprisingly, yes.

Often, it comes down to the choices you make while you’re stressed. Sometimes, you might find yourself tossing back cookies and chips while driving the kids around to activities. Stress can cause you to sit at your desk at work eating junk while plowing through piles of paperwork. Some of the choices you make when stressed are the cause of your weight gain, but other times, it can be beyond your control.

Hormones and Your Fight or Flight Response

Stress can trigger chemicals and hormones that bring about the fight or flight response. This is what happens when you see something scary or something that causes you to become stressed. It’s a response that has been around since the days when we had to fight off animals to survive. While that same instinctual response dumps chemicals in our bodies, we’re not running from animals or fighting them to survive. There’s no way to deal with the stress hormones and chemicals that flow through the body. Once the adrenaline wears off, the body wants to replenish what was lost during the stress response or activity. Instead, we’re replenishing when we’ve been sitting on the couch worried about family members or how to pay that big bill that just showed up in the mail.

Belly Fat and Cortisol

In primitive times, we were fighting off animals and trying to survive.  It kept us very busy and active fleeing sabre-tooth tigers day and night, or worry about them and other such threats at the very least.  Back in those times, our bodies were instinctually providing us with exactly what we needed in terms of adrenaline to get through these stressful events.  After the dump of adrenaline, we’d expend calories running all over the place.  Also, the body would store fat in anticipation of these events.  But things have changed in those, oh, say 10 000 years.

Now, you might say, “Hey, my kids are my little sabre tooth tigers.  I run around after them all day.  Isn’t that similar?”  Well, not exactly.  Before there were modern societies, human beings were nomadic, continually running for their lives from either animals or other humans.  So, no, you taking your kids to the mall isn’t the same as waking up to the mongols coming up over the hill with their horses and crossbows and you have 5 minutes to grab all your stuff and haul ass.

Now, when we’re continuously stressed, we end up with a layer of visceral fat around our middles because our first reaction isn’t to stress isn’t the same as when we’d be running from the mongols, or bears, or whatever we used to get chased around by back in the day.

Nowadays, this pudge gathers around our middle, due to cortisol receptors and the supply of blood vessels around your belly. While cortisol is essential when you need to fight against physical dangers, it’s useless and harmful for those who are constantly stressed. Once the fat starts collecting around our middles, it’s difficult to remove. Excess cortisol makes it hard to maintain a good metabolism, too.

Anxiety and Comfort Foods

When our fight or flight response is triggered, we get this incredible fidgety feeling that can make it hard to relax for a long time after. While that anxiety can be focused towards physical activities like exercise or cleaning, it’s often directed towards food. Anxiety can trigger emotional eating, overeating and making the wrong choices to feel better.

It’s incredibly common for people to use food as a way to relax when they feel anxious. Stressed-out and anxious people deal with their anxiety in common ways. One of those ways is to watch television. A few hours of television per night leads to relaxation in many cases, but it also leads to eating while in front of the tv. You mindlessly turn to food to fill your time while vegging in front of a favorite show.

Fast Food Cravings

When you feel bad, you want to turn to foods that make you feel good. That could be a bag of potato chips, a bowl of ice cream, or a sleeve of cookies. They’re easy and simple to consume. You can pull into a drive-thru and order burgers and fries or tacos, and even a small piece of pie with your meal. When you’re stressed, it can be too much work to come home after a hard day and prepare a healthy, home-cooked meal for yourself or your family. This makes fast food a simple de-stresser, and it can make you feel better while you’re eating it. Food almost always tastes better when someone else is preparing it, too.

Sleepless Nights and Weight Gain

Staying up late because you’re worried about bills or trying to figure out how to help your wayward teen means that you’re not sleeping as much as you should be. Research has shown that stress and worry is one of the most common causes of insomnia. When your overactive mind won’t power down for the night, you’re left feeling stressed and anxious when you should be taking part in restorative sleep. It’s often a vicious cycle of sleepless nights and frustrated days. You’re not at your best when you haven’t had enough sleep. The smallest frustrations can make you anxious and angry. The lack of sleep can do more than make you frustrated. It can have an impact on the chemicals in your body that control appetite; ghrelin and leptin.

Stress alone can definitely make you gain weight. It impacts a variety of hormones in the body that help to regulate cortisol as well as the chemicals leptin and ghrelin that control appetite. It’s helpful when you get lots of needed sleep when you’re stressed and don’t turn to comfort foods or fast foods to feel better.

Jeanette Kierstead

About the Author

Jeanette Kierstead