The Big Connection Between Stress and Weight Gain

Elizabeth Millard
by Elizabeth Millard
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The Big Connection Between Stress and Weight Gain

When it comes to your weight and fitness goals, maybe you’re crushing it in the kitchen and the gym. Your macros are a thing of beauty, your cardio and strength mix is consistent and individualized — but when it comes to results, you’re not getting the traction you want. What gives?

There could be many factors at play, but one big culprit might be stress. Here are some reasons why — along with suggestions for how to lower your stress levels — and possibly your scale’s numbers, too.

THE ROLE OF CORTISOL

Feeling frazzled or overwhelmed triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone designed to assist with our “fight or flight” response when we’re in danger. Cortisol gives the body the energy it needs to cope with threats, and it certainly plays an important role in keeping us motivated and energized.

But when cortisol is elevated for too long — all too easy in our always-on culture — it’s associated with higher levels of obesity, and particularly with weight gain in the midsection, according to dietician Michelle Routhenstein of Entirely Nourished. That may be in part because cortisol makes us crave high-sugar carbohydrates, since they provide the fastest source of energy.

Simple carbs might do the trick if you’re in the middle of a marathon, but if you’re struggling with work deadlines and grabbing those options for a boost, the risk of gaining weight from those snacks increases.

But you don’t even need to overeat for cortisol to affect your waistline. The chronic secretion of the hormone itself can become a problem, adds Eliza Kingsford, psychotherapist and author of “Brain-Powered Weight Loss.”

That’s because one of the functions of cortisol is to shuttle glucose out of storage so your brain and body can use it for the expected battle ahead. But under chronic stress, the body doesn’t need all that extra glucose, so it releases insulin to deal with it. More insulin can lead to weight gain, and it becomes an ongoing cycle, Kingsford says.

GETTING STRESSED OVER STRESS

Getting stuck in this cycle can be very frustrating, especially if you’re ramping up on calorie tracking to control your weight and still not seeing results — or potentially gaining more weight when you don’t want to.

“Once there is a chronic level of cortisol secreted, no amount of exercise or calorie restriction will budge someone’s weight,” says Kingsford. “Imagine eating well, exercising and doing everything you can to stay healthy, only to find you’re gaining weight. This, in turn, leads to feelings of distress and the cycle continues.”

With stress on top of your existing stress, that might lead to overeating, but it could also have the opposite effect, Routhenstein says. Some people lose their appetite during stressful periods, which is due to a different hormone, corticotropin, which suppresses appetite.

This temporary decrease in caloric intake may cause short-term weight loss in some. But it’s not a good strategy for the long-term health of your body, Routhenstein adds, because the deficit in calories can slow your metabolism and reprogram it to cause future weight gain.

CHILL-OUT STRATEGIES

Enough with the bad news about how stress is sabotaging your body and your goals — the good news is you can actually turn it around and get back on track.

“Being aware that you’re stressed is the first step,” says Routhenstein. “Once you recognize when you are stressed, and the behaviors that may happen due to it, such as overeating, you can then start to find ways to implement mechanisms to manage and lower the stress.”

Just like any other health strategy, you need to play around with different options until you find tactics that work especially well for you. Some people groove on yoga, mindfulness and meditation, while others find that doing a particularly grueling HIIT class washes away the day’s cortisol build-up.


READ MORE > 5 POSE YOGA FIX: YOGA FOR BETTER SLEEP


For most people, getting better sleep and going outside whenever possible can be helpful. Kingsford notes that numerous studies have suggested walking in nature can lead to a lasting reduction in cortisol levels.

Even small hacks can have a big impact. For example, personal trainer Stephanie Lincoln of Fire Team Whiskey has a rule she doesn’t look at her phone or laptop until she gets to work in the morning.

“That means I get an hour and a half of no emails and no social media, and that gives me time to check in with how I feel that day,” she says. “I do deep breathing on the way to work and sing along to the radio.”

For Lincoln, and many other people, being preventive when it comes to stress is far easier than handling a stress monster in full-blown cortisol mode. So, even if you’re not stressed now, putting strategies in place to stay that way can be crucial for staying on track, no matter what your long-term weight goals might be.

About the Author

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth is a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness. She’s also an organic farmer, yoga teacher, obstacle course aficionado and 5K junkie. Her work has appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, and other publications.

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