Why do I gain weight when I’m stressed?

Short answer: External stressors (work, relationships, finances, etc) can affect our hormones that regulate our hunger, resulting in us often eating calorie dense foods (sugars, fats, etc) as a quick energy source to feel better and thereby manage the stressor.

Long answer:

When we become stressed, our bodies release stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline that in turn release glucose into our bloodstream. This is a natural response to both fuel the brain and muscle tissue as part of a ‘fight or flight’ response. While this is a very effective mechanism when the stress response involves movement toward a target or away from a threat, perceived stressors in a modern world are now more likely to be less physical and more mental or emotional in nature and result in little or no movement in responding to this stress.

Blood glucose that isn’t utilised during a stress response is converted to adipose tissue (body fat) as a form of energy that can be used in the future if required. Fat is a living tissue that can carry inflammatory chemicals in our body, with different types of fat in the body including subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (internal organs) fat. The deeper visceral fat stored around our body organs is often described as ‘toxic fat’ and can contribute to a range of diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers.

As glucose is generally the brain’s primary fuel source and fast acting as a simple sugar when ingested, the body is rewarded through a release of dopamine in the brain that makes us feel good and can further encourage the behaviour. This is especially so when eating foods high in sucrose (table sugar) or fructose (fruit sugar) that are sweeter than glucose and added to many processed foods.

The often addictive nature of processed foods can lead a person to eating a lot more of these foods than needed, even when not stressed. If a person is having difficulty managing one or numerous stressors, these foods can be perceived as a ‘quick fix’ to help alleviate the stress for a short time.

The key is to determine how best to manage stress without turning to processed or junk food. As we are all wired to take the path of least resistance when trying to relieve stress, healthier snacking options are available if food continues to be the stress reliever of choice.

Aiming to reduce caffeine intake can assist, as caffeine can dramatically affect your cortisol levels in conjunction with your existing stress and spike it throughout the day. Tea can be a great substitute, as it generally has less caffeine per cup than coffee, with the added benefit of more antioxidants.

You could actively reduce some stress by increasing endorphins that get released when exercising, gardening or any form of movement, designed to help you both feel better and reduce pain levels. Social contact with friends and your local community may help reduce your stress as well.

A very important way to manage your stress levels and therefore weight is to learn to prioritise your sleep. Studies have found that sleep deprivation and changes in your circadian rhythms can affect cortisol levels and increase concentrations of inflammatory proteins.

If you require assistance with managing your stress levels, we have numerous services here at WLC Medical that can help. Our Psychologist David Simich, along with Keystone Counselling and Belmont Counselling can assist in identifying causes of stress and provide mind strategies to help manage external stressors. Andrea Kunneke our Dietitian can give you sound nutritional guidance to assist with healthier food choices, with Adam Johnston our Physiotherapist and Remedial Massage therapist onsite Calum Johnston can assist with physical body stress and strains as well.