Stress and Weight Gain: Fat is Not Your Fault

By Susan E. Sklar, M.D.
Gaining weight, especially unexpectedly, is incredibly frustrating. Trying to lose weight and discovering that you’re gaining it instead — often in spite of what seems, on the surface, to be a healthy diet and exercise routine — is even more frustrating. What if that weight gain isn’t your fault? In fact, what if that fat you just can’t seem to get rid of is the result of not an unhealthy diet or missing days in your exercise routine, but stress?
Stress can create a number of problems with your weight loss goals. In some cases, it can even prevent you from reaching your goals, even when you’re doing everything else right. At Sklar Center, we strive to help everyone reach their weight loss goals, including identifying many of the problems that, in many cases, are standing in your way.

What Exactly Is Stress?

When most people hear about stress, they automatically think about its negative impacts: raised blood pressure, a depleted immune system, and difficulty sleeping. In reality, however, the stress response — that is, your body’s natural response to being under pressure — isn’t intended to be a bad thing. Short-term stress responses can provide you with the energy and focus you need to accomplish immediate goals.

In those short-term scenarios, that stress response is a good thing. Indeed, it is exactly what your body needs to get things done. Once it’s over, your body returns to its normal state, often with an extra flush or glow that leaves you excited or cheerful in the moment. In fact, many people deliberately pursue activities that create short-term stress response: roller coasters, extreme sports, or adventures.

Long-Term Stress

Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t designed to deal well with long-term or chronic stress–and the way today’s society is set up, all too many people deal with chronic ongoing stress in their lives. Some people even take pride in how much stress they’re under at any given moment–all without stopping to consider how that stress is impacting them long-term.

Maybe you have a job where “tight deadlines” are just the usual for your job. Perhaps you’re the primary caregiver for a parent or child with a chronic illness. Maybe you’re dealing with marriage or relationship trouble that has you ready to pull your hair out on a daily basis.

Chronic Stress

It doesn’t take long for that chronic stress to start to get to you. You may grow more irritable, struggle to keep up with your daily responsibilities and notice yourself getting sick more often. Indeed, your moods crash. Your sleep suffers. Worse, with no end in sight, those symptoms continue to get worse.

Not only that, chronic stress can sabotage your weight loss goals — and, in many cases, even cause you to gain weight.

Chronic stress is linked to obesity and metabolic disease[1], especially in women. It can cause a host of problems that can cause you to gain weight or, at the very least, make it impossible for you to lose it. Consider:

The Impact of Stress on Your Gut Bacteria

Stress and gut bacteria[2] are part of a vicious cycle: as your stress levels increase, you’ll often have higher levels of bad bacteria, which can lead to digestive troubles and a host of other issues. That increase in bad bacteria in the gut can then lead to increased anxiety and higher stress response. It creates a vicious cycle that, for many people, especially women, is incredibly difficult to break. Your gut bacteria can impact many different areas of your overall health, including:

  • Digestive health
  • Your immune system
  • Your mental health
  • Metabolism
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome

Inflammation

As your stress levels increase and you remain in a chronic, stressed state, levels of cortisol often go up. As a biological response to short-term stress, that is a good thing. In that chronic state of stress, however, increased cortisol can also increase inflammation[3] throughout the body. As a result, you may notice increased pain and exhaustion in general. Not only does that make it hard to get out and exercise–and increase your recovery time when you do manage to fight through it and get out there–chronic inflammation can also lower your immune system, making you more susceptible to a wide range of illnesses and injuries.

The stress response can also activate or elevate many diseases. If you already suffer from chronic conditions, including conditions like fibromyalgia or diabetes, chronic inflammation can make those conditions considerably worse.

Your Nervous System

Your nervous system is responsible for transmitting messages throughout your body. When your body kicks into “fight or flight” mode, which it often does on high levels of stress, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. In this state, your body is alert. That’s a good thing in response to short-term stress, since it leaves you ready to handle whatever comes your way. When chronic stress keeps your nervous system constantly on high alert, on the other hand, your body doesn’t get a chance to dial down and rest. You won’t be able to heal as quickly from injuries, nor can you take time to just digest your food, enjoy your day, and relax a little. As a result, your weight often starts to increase.

Your Hormones

Many women are entirely tired of hearing, “Oh, it’s just hormones!” in response to anything, including their stress responses. In reality, however, your body’s reaction to stress often begins with a hormonal reaction. Danger–real or imagined–causes your brain to kick off a hormone cascade that moves from your brain to your adrenal glands. The hypothalamus kicks things off, getting your nervous system ready and triggering a hormone response that will set off your pituitary gland, which passes messages on to your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands then release both cortisol and adrenaline.

When this connection, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA Axis, is disrupted, insulin resistance and abdominal obesity can occur. Those are both things that many people work hard to prevent–but if your stress levels are staying high, you might struggle to regulate those automatic responses and keep your body on an even keel.

Your Body on Cortisol

Cortisol has a huge impact on many areas of your body, including:

  • Digestion
  • Gut health
  • Inflammation
  • Hunger hormones[4]
  • Insulin release and sensitivity
  • Moods
  • Sleep
  • Mid abdomen fat

All of those factors can impact your weight, including your ability to effectively lose weight or even maintain your current body weight. In addition, high cortisol levels and stress tell your body that you are in an emergency state and need to conserve fuel. This ends up putting extra fat around your midsection[5]. As a result, when your stress levels increase, all of these areas of your health can suffer–and you may find yourself struggling to deal with the weight gain that results.

Immunity

Your immune system is closely linked to your digestive tract. When your digestive system isn’t in great shape due to chronic stress, it doesn’t take long for you to feel the impact in your immune system, as well. The more stressed you become, the more susceptible you become to illness.

Cravings

All too many people fall prey to stress eating: choosing to overeat or overindulge in the wrong foods. When you’re stressed, you’re probably not going to feel like taking the time to prepare healthy, nourishing foods that will help keep your digestive system in line and your immune system in check. All too many people, in fact, find that stress has them overeating sugary or fatty “comfort foods” that might make them feel better at the moment, but that ultimately only increases problems with their health.

Not only do you eat more often[6] when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to eat unhealthy things. It can cause you to miss cues that you’re full or to keep reaching for unhealthy food even when you know you’ve already eaten enough.  Of course, it doesn’t take long for those habits to sabotage your weight loss goals and leave you feeling bloated, heavy, and depressed.

Some of that craving may come from increased blood sugar as a result of the stress response. When you’re stressed, your blood sugar goes up to give your body the fuel it needs to respond — biologically speaking, to either fight the thing causing the stress or flee from it. Since many people who suffer from chronic stress are also spending more time sitting around rather than using that extra fuel, the body secretes insulin to re-absorb sugar into the cells, which can, in turn, lead to increased insulin resistance. The response can also cause you to store more fat, especially around the waist.

The Impact of Stress on Your Mood

It doesn’t take long for chronic stress to start negatively impacting your mood[7]. The longer you suffer from this, the more depressed or anxious you may become.

Chronic anxiety and depression then become demotivating. You don’t “feel” like going grocery shopping for healthy foods, or like preparing a healthy meal once you bring those foods home. You don’t feel up to putting in that workout, even though you know full well that you’ll feel better once you do it. As the cycle continues, you may become increasingly less likely to commit to the activities that will help you take care of yourself–and as a result, stress may increase, since you’re fueling the same vicious cycle.

Sleep

As you become increasingly stressed, you may also struggle to fall asleep. Healthy stress, one that you need when you are in danger, keeps you alert and moving. Chronic stress, however, can leave you unable to fall asleep at night or wind down — and that lack of sleep can, in turn, leave you struggling to lose weight.  When your sleep is short, you gain weight.  Studies show that just one week of sleeping only 4-5 hours a night makes you eat 300 more calories a day.

What Can You Do About It?

You’ve got a great understanding of what stress can do to your ability to lose weight, but what are you supposed to do about it, anyway? When you’re stuck in the middle of that cycle, regulating it may feel incredibly difficult. Fortunately, there are ways you can regulate your stress levels and make weight loss a little easier.

Tip #1: Remove Things From Your Schedule
When you have too much going on — especially things that you don’t want to do–it can unnecessarily increase your stress levels and leave you struggling to keep up–and struggling to lose weight.

Tip #2: Seek out Support and Help
Delegate tasks to someone else, rather than feeling as though you have to do it all yourself. Ask for support and help. When you notice your stress levels increasing, talk to your employer about reducing the workload or extending your deadlines so that you have more time to meet your goals. These simple steps can often make it much easier to decrease it, giving you more energy to make other positive changes in your life.

Tip #3: Make Time for Things That Help You Relax
Spend a little time in nature[8] on a regular basis — daily, if you can manage it. Make time for the people who are most important in your life. Take time to unwind, doing whatever it is that brings you pleasure. Over time, this routine can help decrease your stress levels significantly.

Tip #4: Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise not only helps with weight loss, but it can also substantially reduce your stress levels, in turn making it easier to lose weight. Choose a light form of exercise that you enjoy: yoga, tai chi, swimming, or going for a long walk.

Tip #5: Prioritize Healthy Sleep
Sleep is often one of the first things to suffer when your stress levels start increasing. You may go to bed later and get up earlier in an effort to get everything done. Unfortunately, all too often, that just leaves you more exhausted and packing on the pounds.  Prioritize healthy sleep. Go to bed at the same time every night, and set your alarm for around the same time each morning. Make sure your bedroom is dark, with as few distractions as possible.

Learn More About Stress and Weight Gain

Dealing with stress can put a damper on your weight loss plans–but you don’t have to deal with it alone.  If you would like more information or are considering a personal evaluation at the Sklar Center, give us a call today at 562-596-5196 to request a free consultation.

References

  1. Eline S. van der Valk, Mesut Savas, and Elisabeth F. C. van Rossum
    Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?
    Curr Obes Rep. 2018; 7(2): 193–203.
    LINK: Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?
  2. Healthbeat
    The gut-brain connection
    Harvard Health Publishing: Healthbeat.
    LINK: The gut-brain connection
  3. Yun-Zi Liu, Yun-Xia Wang, and Chun-Lei Jiang
    Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases
    Front Hum Neurosci. 2017; 11: 316.
    LINK: Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases
  4. Ariana M. Chao, PhD, CRNP, Ania M. Jastreboff, MD, PhD, […], and Rajita Sinha, PhD
    Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight
    Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Apr; 25(4): 713–720.
    LINK: Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight
  5. Moyer AE, Rodin J, Grilo CM, Cummings N, Larson LM, Rebuffé-Scrive M.
    Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women.
    Obes Res. 1994 May;2(3):255-62.
    LINK: Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women.
  6. Yvonne H. C. Yau and Marc N. Potenza
    Stress and Eating Behaviors
    Minerva Endocrinol. 2013 Sep; 38(3): 255–267.
    LINK: Stress and Eating Behaviors
  7. Dijkstra K, Charness N, Yordon R, Fox M.
    Changes in physiological stress and self-reported mood in younger and older adults after exposure to a stressful task.
    Neuropsychol Dev Cogn B Aging Neuropsychol Cogn. 2009 May;16(3):338-56. doi: 10.1080/13825580902773859. Epub 2009 Apr 9.
    LINK: Changes in physiological stress and self-reported mood in younger and older adults after exposure to a stressful task.
  8. Eva Selhub and Alan Logan
    Your Brain on Nature: Forest Bathing and Reduced Stress
    Your Brain on Nature. Wiley, 2012.
    LINK: Your Brain on Nature: Forest Bathing and Reduced Stress

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