5 Ways Stress Can Cause Weight Gain

by | Oct 9, 2019 | Last updated Jan 6, 2023

You’ve revamped your lifestyle, yet still, the scale is stuck. Have you addressed your stress? It may seem like a stretch, but it can be a major roadblock on your weight loss journey. 

Stress is often thought of as emotional tension, and people who deal with chronic stress may only notice its mental and emotional effects. But stress can have an enormous impact on the physical body – including your weight.

Not all stress is bad. In fact, the stress response is essential for survival. However, when stress becomes unmanageable it can become detrimental to your health. Let’s take a closer look at how stress affects your body, how it leads to weight gain, and what you can do about it.

Good stress vs bad stress

In small doses, stress is a powerful tool. When you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases hormones that give you the mental clarity to make quick decisions and a boost in energy to act on them. This can help improve your memory and boost your efficiency – something that was as valuable to our ancestors as it is today.

It’s when a little stress turns into chronic stress that things turn funky – especially in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 

The HPA axis is stimulated by emotional stress. It sets into motion a series of physical changes that are meant to protect you. The adrenal gland releases a surge of adrenaline and the hormone cortisol to create the “flight or fight” response. When the “threat” is cleared, cortisol should drop. 

With chronic stress, the body is in a perpetual state of heightened hormones. When the source of your stress is constant, your body never gets the all-clear signal to return to normal, and over time, that may result in a range of hormone dysfunctions.

If you suffer from chronic stress or an anxiety disorder, it can diminish your executive function. That means you may have trouble remembering appointments, daze out in the middle of your workday, or drop the ball when you’re trying to multitask. It also means you’ll have less self-control, and you may struggle when it comes to processing your emotions. To make things worse, chronic stress can disrupt synapse regulation, which can cause you to avoid socializing and isolate you from your support network. 

Chronic stress can also increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. And there are a number of ways stress has been linked to weight gain, obesity, and even diabetes. Remember, #NoomNerds: correlation does not imply causation. The stress-weight connection is complicated! That being said, here are 5 ways stress may impact your weight:

1. Stress increases cortisol

You’ve met cortisol: the stress hormone. Constant cortisol elevation can lead to cortisol dysfunction, and elevated cortisol levels are often associated with excess abdominal fat storage. Abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, is the most dangerous kind, as it affects the vital organs in your core.

2. Stress impacts your hunger and fullness cues

Cortisol has a domino effect on a number of appetite- and fat-regulating hormones, including leptin and insulin. Leptin controls your hunger and satiety by telling your brain that you’re full. Insulin helps your body break down sugar from your blood into energy, which manages your blood sugar levels and thus hunger. Increased cortisol released from the HPA axis is related to resistance of leptin and insulin, meaning the body stops responding to their signals. And ultimately meaning, you can feel much hungrier and eat much more. 

3. Stress is associated with greater calorie intake

In the short term, stress actually decreases your appetite. When your body produces the hormone epinephrine, it activates the fight or flight response and, combined with cortisol, it can burn glycogen stores in your liver to raise your blood sugar.  

But in the long term, cortisol can lead to increased food intake. In both men and women, higher perceived stress and cortisol levels are linked with eating too many calories. Prolonged stress also seems to influence people to choose foods high in fat or sugar. 

Whether one eats too much junk food because of a hormone imbalance, or because of a learned psychological behavior connecting high-calorie food with comfort isn’t totally clear, but the connection is evident.

4. Stress impacts your brain’s reward system

It’s theorized that food can have addictive and dependent traits, as tasty food can stimulate the brain’s reward system by releasing opioid. More so, opioid release can shut down an HPA axis stimulation, so theoretically, chronic stress can trigger overeating as a way to a way to cope with an overactive HPA axis. Plus, in this model, eating makes you happy, which stressed people strive for.

5. Stress shifts your mindset and priorities

When you have 99 stress-y problems, sometimes the last thing you can do is care for your health. You may experience decision fatigue, a drop in motivation, or a drop in self-efficacy. All of these shifts from your health habits can inevitably cause weight gain or stagnation. 

The bottom line:

Stress is biologically rooted and there might be a biological mechanism at play that objectively connects high levels of stress to weight gain. Though it’s not fully understood, the evidence is strong enough to say that chronic stress is well worth managing – both for your weight and for your mental wellbeing. 

Stress is inevitable in life, but you control how you respond to it. If you build healthy habits to respond to stress, like exercise and mindfulness that help you resolve stress, your weight loss and general health goals will be much more obtainable.

Start your 14-day Noom trial to improve your health and manage your stress today!