Stress. It descends like a shroud, making you tense and killing your appetite. And yet, strangely, you somehow gain weight. How does that even happen? Like traveling back in time to the 1950s to make sure your parents have their first date, the relationship between stress and weight loss/gain is one of life’s most beguiling paradoxes. After all, shouldn’t sustained bouts of fight-or-flight instinct coursing through your body translate into burning a decent number of calories?
While some experts indicate that weight loss is common with life’s pressures, this is not always the case. Stress and weight loss do not always go together. And not only does this vary from one person to the next, but it also varies depending on your circumstances and how long you’ve been experiencing stress.
By understanding how stress can affect your body, you can better manage the outcome. At the same time, you can take measures to keep your weight at a healthy number even when your stress levels are high.
Stress and Weight Loss: A Biological Explanation
At some point in our lives, many of us have experienced stress and weight loss. We may be working longer hours while skipping meals. Or stress may be leaving us unable to sleep, which might also be cranking up our metabolism. There’s a biological explanation for what’s occurring in both scenarios: acute stress is triggering the release of adrenaline, which is a known appetite suppressant. Thus, between eating less and being more active, stress and weight loss often occur together.
If losing weight is a priority or goal, stress weight loss may sound pretty attractive. But having high levels of stress is no vacation. And more importantly, sustained stress is linked to a number of health issues. In addition to depression and anxiety, stress can lead to hypertension, heart disease and even higher risk for cancer. To make matters worse, stress weight loss is often a temporary thing. Though stress and weight loss might sound attractive initially, there are other more healthful ways to achieve your weight goals.
The Truth About Stress and Weight Gain
While stress and weight loss are often linked together, the combination of stress and weight gain is actually more commonplace. This can occur due to a variety of factors. First, stress causes the release of cortisol, which is also known as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol initially reduces your appetite, slows your digestive system, and lets you focus on priorities. This scenario causes stress weight loss at first. But in time, these patterns shift. As stress goes from acute to chronic, cortisol has many unwanted weight-gaining effects.
Cortisol triggers the release of “stress steroids” in the body. These natural steroids cause fatty tissue to be deposited more around the belly area. Cortisol is also associated with higher insulin levels, which makes your tissues more easily absorb glucose. Chronic cortisol release also tends to promote cravings for “comfort foods” to appease feelings of stress. And high cortisol can disrupt your sleep, leaving you with less energy. As a result, you naturally become less active, and you burn fewer calories. As you might suspect, the end result is not weight loss but weight gain instead. These outcomes—along with the distractions that stress causes—explains why losing weight during chronic stress can be a challenge.
Managing Your Stress and Your Weight
Avoiding stress at all costs is simply not possible. Pressures related to work, finances, and relationships are inevitable. However, there are ways to better manage both your stress and weight at the same time.
For one, keeping a regular dietary routine can help. Healthy eating habits will aid in keeping your weight under control. Plus, a well-structured routine will help you better handle the stress. At the same time, you should slightly scale your exercise goals back to accommodate stress. This will reduce any pressures you may feel about exercising but will enable you to keep this essential activity in your life.
Of course, the best approach to managing your weight is not stress weight loss. Instead, applying a variety of healthy diet and exercise strategies will offer better results. Likewise, dealing with your stress in a healthy way is vital in the long run. Meditation, yoga, and many other stress management techniques offer more effective ways to deal with stress.
Each of us is different, and our response to stress can undoubtedly vary. That is why stress-related weight loss or weight gain may occur. But by pursuing healthier strategies for both, you can ultimately be the best you can be.