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How Stress Affects Weight Loss

author image Craig Smith
Craig Smith covers weight loss and exercise programming for various online publications. He has been a personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise since 2001. Smith also holds a diploma in exercise physiology and kinesiology from the National Personal Training Institute.
How Stress Affects Weight Loss
Excess stress can slow weight loss. Photo Credit AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images

Stress is prevalent in today’s fast-paced world. Common triggers range from relationships and finances to work stress, leaving focus on exercise and weight loss blurred. In addition, chemical responses in the body from stress can bring weight loss to a halting grind. Understanding how stress affects the body and recognizing stress triggers can aid in keeping extra pounds off.

Response to Stress

How Stress Affects Weight Loss
People have different reactions to stress. Photo Credit Todd Warnock/Photodisc/Getty Images

Under events of stress, adrenal responses in the body are triggered. This response is known as the fight or flight response. Glycogen in the liver and muscle tissue are activated for use as a quick energy source. This uptake of energy was highly efficient in caveman days, while under attack from a tiger for example. Cavemen simply used this surge of energy to either run away or fight. Modern man is wired in the same fashion; however the difference is stress sources that plague modern life generally do not require running away or fighting. According to a 2005 article from the University of New Mexico, this stress response can lead to loss of muscle mass, increased fat storage and impulses to overeat.

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Increased Cortisol Release

How Stress Affects Weight Loss
Cortisol can slow Photo Credit zorattifabio/iStock/Getty Images

Cortisol release under chronic stress can make weight loss difficult for a couple of reasons. High levels of the hormone attack muscle mass, slowing metabolism due to the fact that muscle burns calories to simply exist. Additionally, unwanted cortisol release results in the storage of fat mostly in the abdominal area for later energy use. According to the National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service, other signs of elevated cortisol levels are high blood glucose levels, high blood pressure and fatigue.

Metabolism and Stress

How Stress Affects Weight Loss
Work stress. Photo Credit Otmar Winterleitner/iStock/Getty Images

A March 2006 article in the “British Medical Journal” stated that employees with chronic work stress have more than double the odds of metabolic syndrome than those without work stress. Metabolic syndrome is defined as a group of risk factors that occur together and increase the risk for stroke and Type II diabetes. The study also provided evidence for the likelihood of links to stress from everyday life with heart disease as well.

Food Cravings

How Stress Affects Weight Loss
Stress can cause people to overeat. Photo Credit Tomasz Trojanowski/Hemera/Getty Images

Often thought of as an excuse to eat, food cravings and overeating actually have a factual basis behind this effect of stress. Experiencing stressful situations cause the body to undergo a variety of hormonal changes, including the release of adrenaline and cortisol. When a tense situation is over, the release of cortisol results in an increase of appetite. Under chronic stress, these cravings can lead to unwanted weight gain due to high level of cortisol release in the body.


Freeing your life from stress may seem like an impossible task, but you can eliminate unwelcome tension by applying a few techniques to your day. Identifying stress triggers in your life is the first step. By finding the root of your tension, it is easier to gain clarity on how to overcome them. If work is a cause, take five to 10 minutes out of your day to meditate or practice deep breathing techniques to bring your body to a calmer state. Additionally, make time in your schedule for exercise. A routine exercise plan will decrease the risk of depression and assist in a better night’s sleep, which is a key factor in reducing cortisol release and weight gain.

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