We’ve all experienced some of the symptoms of stress at one point or another—sleepless nights and tiredness, skin breakouts, headaches and anxiety, to name just a few. And most of us know that stress can put us at an increased risk for serious health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease. But it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that chronic pressures—a relentless pace at work, or juggling what feels like an avalanche of responsibilities at home—can change our body chemistry, which may affect our behaviors and cause us to gain or hold on to weight.
Many people don’t make the connection between being stressed out and the numbers on the scale. By understanding the link, and figuring out how to manage your worries, you might find it easier to achieve and maintain a weight that’s right for you. Here are a few of the ways stress works against weight management:
Stress ramps up your cortisol levels. When you’re feeling frazzled, your adrenal glands release cortisol, a stress hormone, as part of your body’s fight-or-flight response. This is important when you need to be able to react quickly—if you need to quickly get out of the way of an oncoming car, for example. “But you don’t want this reaction happening 20 times a day,” explains Judy Deutsch, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. Too much cortisol bumps up your insulin levels, and “high insulin is really to blame for weight gain, especially around the middle,” Deutsch says. Stress has also been shown to increase cravings for foods high in fat and sugar. Over time, the combination of increased cortisol and fatty, sugary food intake may interfere with leptin, a hormone that helps us feel full.
Stress increases emotional eating. When you’re under pressure, you’re likely to crave meals and snacks that are high in carbs. These foods cause the body to release serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical. “Unfortunately, these foods also up your blood sugar quickly, and then you’re back to the same scenario of high insulin,” Deutsch explains. If you turn to food to soothe stress often enough, not only will you end up packing on the pounds, but you’ll also end up with a hormonal imbalance. This can leave you tired and your body, particularly your adrenal glands, overworked.
Next time you want something sweet and indulgent, try just imagining it instead of eating it. Researchers did an experiment in which they told people who were very stressed out that they would get a milkshake as a treat. Interestingly, even those who didn’t get the drink but just anticipated it showed activation in parts of the brain that elevate mood.
Stress interferes with sleep. Falling and staying asleep can be a challenge when you’re under stress, which can prevent you from banking the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. But skimping on shut-eye can tip the balance of hormones that control appetite. “People who don’t sleep well tend to have higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you want to eat more,” says Deutsch.
Plus, when you’re running on fumes, it’s harder to resist temptation. That could mean taking a second serving of your co-worker’s birthday cake or sleeping in and missing your scheduled workout. Not paying attention to what and how much you’re eating comes at a big calorie cost: People who eat mindlessly may take in an extra 600 calories per day. “That’s how you can gain 10 pounds without really realizing it,” Deutsch says.
Although you can’t avoid stress, you can learn how to better manage it. Doing so can help protect your health and may prevent weight gain or help you shed those few extra pounds.