Stress and weight gain

Stress and weight gainBefore I explain the link between stress and weight gain, it’s helpful to understand what happens in your body when you get stressed, and what hormones are involved.

Adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and cortisol are the most important stress hormones involved in your stress response, also known as “fight or flight” response. They are released mainly from your adrenal glands when you are in danger and need to react, or when your brain thinks there is a threat.

Adrenaline acts very quickly and prepares you to fight or run away – it increases your strength, speed, and sharpens your senses. It does it by:

  • increasing your heart rate and blood pressure
  • dilating pupils and blood vessels in your muscles so that more glucose can be used for energy
  • increasing breathing so you can take in more oxygen
  • increasing glucose release into the bloodstream to use for energy (running, fighting etc.)

Another very well know effect of adrenaline is increased sweating.

Cortisol is released from adrenal glands about 15min after the onset of stress and it can stay in the body for hours.

Cortisol takes over from adrenaline and increases the blood glucose so that you have energy to do whatever you need to do to protect yourself from danger and get to safety. Similarly, like adrenaline, it enhances the action of your muscles, heart and lungs, and it slows downs the organs and systems that are not needed for immediate survival such as digestive, reproductive and immune system. If adrenaline and cortisol are elevated for a long period of time, it may lead to digestive issues such as acid reflux, constipation and hormonal imbalances such as PMS or an underactive thyroid (1), (2), (3).

Effects of chronic stress

The body’s stress response is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal.

If, however, you are constantly under stress, even though the stressor or threat isn’t an immediate danger to your life, such as traffic jam, money worries, an upsetting work email, or feelings of anger or fear, the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, causing your heart to beat faster, increasing blood pressure and glucose circulation – all to prepare you to take immediate physical action, which often isn’t needed. Think of the times when you sat at the desk or in your car, with your stress response turned on, without doing anything to release it.

The long-term activation of the stress response and the overexposure to adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including (4):

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • weight gain / difficulty losing weight
  • digestive issues (e.g. IBS, acid reflux, constipation)
  • muscles pain and tension
  • headaches
  • sleep problems and insomnia
  • memory and concentration issues
  • heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
  • suppressed immune system, thus susceptibility to infections.

What to do when you get adrenaline rush?

As adrenaline and cortisol prepare your body to physically act, which can also be described as an adrenaline rush, it’s a good idea to use up your stress hormones and glucose soon after a stressful event or later in the day if you can’t do anything immediately about it. Exercise has been shown to be very helpful because on one side it uses up the stress hormones leaving you calmer, but it also produces endorphins, the ”feel-good” chemicals which elevate your mood.

If you don’t exercise regularly, begin with something you like and start slow – brisk walking will do. More vigorous exercise such as running or cycling can burn off glucose and stress hormones quicker, but it’s important to build up to it gradually.

It’s also important to incorporate relaxation techniques on a daily basis. Choose whatever suits you best: (guided) medication, breathing techniques such as deep abdominal breathing, prayer, visualisation, yoga, tai chi, or simply doing something that relaxes you such as gardening. Having social support is also an important element of stress management. There are many free resources out there in the form of apps or videos, or you can choose to work with a practitioner who can help you manage your response to stress better (5), (6), (7).

Can stress cause weight gain? 

Both adrenaline and cortisol increase blood sugar (glucose) level. High levels of blood sugar lead to a release of insulin. Insulin’s task is to move glucose from the bloodstream into cells for energy. However, if insulin is constantly elevated, cells stop listening to insulin, they become resistant to its action, and glucose cannot enter the cells for energy. As high blood glucose is damaging for our veins, insulin needs to remove it from the bloodstream, and it does so by converting glucose into fat and storing it in fatty tissue, mainly around the waist. Think of insulin as a fat storage hormone. It makes you store fat, and also it prevents you from burning that fat off.

glucose cortisol & weight gain

Adrenaline and cortisol not only increase blood glucose, they also make you crave sugary foods, which means you end up having far more glucose floating in the bloodstream than you can possibly use, and you know what happens with surplus glucose. It’s stored in your fatty tissue (8), (9), (10).

Dietary modifications such as reducing carbohydrates are needed to lower blood glucose and thus insulin levels, but they may not be enough if you are chronically under stress while trying to lose weight. On top of that, there are many other possible factors that can be sabotaging your effort of weight loss. I’ve discussed them in this article: “Can’t lose weight? There is more to it than just calories”.

Next steps

Stress management may be the missing piece when it comes to shifting a few extra pounds, and it is something I always discuss with my clients as stress can stop you reaching your goals. Stress indirectly increases insulin, supresses thyroid function, disrupts your sleep, putting your body under even more stress! Therefore managing how you respond to stress in your life is a crucial element to focus on for anyone wants to improve health, but also for those want to lose weight.

If you’ve tried the most common approaches to weight loss but you cannot achieve your goal, or what you do is not sustainable in the long term, please get in touch and let’s have a chat. There are a range of factors that we can look into to give you the best chance of succeeding.