How Does Stress Affect Weight Gain? (Cortisol’s Function in the Body)

Stress can have a big effect on your ability to keep a healthy weight. It can also make it difficult to lose weight. The correlation between stress and weight gain is obvious, whether it’s due to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, unhealthy stress-induced habits, or a combination of the two.

Cortisol and Stress: What’s the Connection?

Researchers have known for a long time that elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can cause weight gain. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol when you’re nervous, and glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream as a consequence. All of this is done to provide you with the energy you require to flee a dangerous situation (also known as the fight or flight response).

When the danger has passed, the adrenaline rush has worn off, and your blood sugar level has dropped. Cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply quickly at this stage.

Sugar Cravings and Cortisol

It’s time to satisfy those sugar cravings. Sugar is always the first thing you reach for when you’re exhausted because it provides the body with the fast energy it believes it requires.

The disadvantage of eating a lot of sugar is that your body stores it, particularly after stressful situations. This energy is primarily retained as abdominal fat, which is notoriously difficult to lose. As a result, the vicious cycle begins: you become overwhelmed, release cortisol, weight increasing , crave more sugar, consume more sugar, and gain even more weight.

Metabolism and Cortisol

Cortisol slows your metabolism, making it impossible to lose weight even though you don’t consume diets high in fat and sugar.

Researchers from Ohio State University interviewed women about their previous day’s tension before serving them a high-fat, high-calorie meal in 2015. Scientists tested the women’s blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels after they finished the meal and calculated their metabolic rates (the pace at which they burned calories and fat).

The researchers discovered that women who recorded one or more stressors in the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than women who were not stressed. In a year, this could result in an 11-pound weight gain. Women who were stressed had higher insulin levels, a hormone that promotes fat accumulation.

Unhealthy Habits Caused by Stress

Aside from the hormonal changes that stress causes, stress can also lead to the following unhealthy habits, all of which can lead to weight gain:

  • Emotional eating: High levels of cortisol will cause you to crave unhealthy foods as well as eat more than you usually would.  Snacking or reaching for a second helping may provide temporary relief from stress, but it will make maintaining a healthy weight more difficult.
  • Eating “accessible” or fast food: When we are anxious and haven’t planned ahead of time, we prefer to eat the first thing that comes to mind and/or what is readily available and affordable, which isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice. You may also choose to drive through a fast-food restaurant rather than invest the time and mental energy necessary to prepare a nutritious, healthy meal.
  • Exercising less: With all of the demands on your time, exercising could be the last thing on your mind. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Long commutes and long periods of sitting at a desk will leave little time for physical activity.
  • Meal skipping: When you’re juggling a dozen things at once, eating a healthy meal can fall to the bottom of your priority list. You might find yourself missing breakfast because you’re late or not eating lunch because your to-do list is simply too long.
  • Sleeping less: When people are depressed, they also have trouble sleeping. Sleep deficiency has also been attributed to a slowed metabolism in studies. Overtiredness can also lead to a loss of willpower and poor eating behaviors.

How to Break the Cycle of Stress and Weight Gain

When you’re tired, it’s easy to let good habits like eating well and exercising regularly slip by the wayside. Maintaining a schedule and/or routine will aid in the adoption of these healthy habits and the prevention of stress-related weight gain. Here are several strategies for breaking the cycle of stress and weight gain:

  • Make physical activity a top priority. Exercising is an essential part of stress control and weight loss. It will help you deal with both problems at the same time, making it crucial for preventing stress-related weight gain. Include daily exercise in your routine, whether you go for a walk during your lunch break or go to the gym after work.
  • Consume more nutritious comfort items. You don’t need carbohydrates or fats to feel better. One of the few studies that looked at the efficacy of comfort foods in boosting morale found that consuming relatively safe comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn, is just as likely to improve a bad mood as eating “unhealthy” foods.
  • Making sure your pantry is filled with these items will make it easier to reach for a healthy alternative when you’re under a lot of pressure.
  • Make mindful eating habit. Without distractions, focusing on what you’re eating will help reduce stress, encourage weight loss, and avoid weight gain. Overweight women who received mindfulness-based stress and nutrition training were better able to resist emotional eating and had lower stress levels, resulting in less belly fat over time, according to one report. Try not to be distracted by your phone or television the next time you eat a meal.
  • Keeping a food diary is a good idea. Observing your eating habits will assist you in gaining control of your food intake. Those who maintained a food journal were more likely to control their weight than those who didn’t, according to a 2011 study of studies that looked at the correlation between self-monitoring and weight loss. Regardless of whether you use an app to monitor your food intake or keep a food log, being more aware of what you eat will help you change your eating habits.
  • Drink a lot of water. It’s quick to confuse hunger with thirst. However, confusing these two desires will cause you to consume more calories than your body requires, resulting in weight gain. Once you’ve removed some slight dehydration, it’s much easier to detect hunger. If it’s only been a few hours since you last ate and you’re hungry, start with a glass of water. If you’re ever hungry, reach for a snack.

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