Gaining weight under stress is a common experience. Unfortunately, the weight you put on often isn’t temporary water weight; when you’re stressed, you tend to accumulate visceral abdominal fat, the kind that can lead to health complications if left unchecked. However, if you find you’re bloating and gaining water weight under stress, talk to a doctor, because it may be the sign of a medical condition.
Stress Hormones at Work
Your body has a natural stress response, releasing different kinds of hormones to help you manage stressful situations. When you first undergo stress, your body enters a “fight or flight” state, and corticotrophin-releasing hormone, or CRH, shoots into your bloodstream. You are primed to take action – just like an animal confronting a predator in the wild. Your appetite diminishes, and your body breaks down fat to use as fuel.
When your stressful situation subsides, your body releases cortisol, which makes your appetite return so you can replenish your glucose and fat stores. Cortisol stays in your system longer than CRH; in fact, if you are in a continuous state of stress – for example, from a difficult job or financial worries – your cortisol levels remain high.
Stress and Weight Gain
One common consequence of too much circulating cortisol is overeating and weight gain, because the foods you crave are high-fat, high-sugar “comfort” or “reward” foods, according to a report published in the European Eating Disorders Review in 2013. Women, in particular, are at high risk of these eating behaviors, according to an article published in Nutrition Bulletin in 2008. The fat cells in your abdominal region are hypersensitive to cortisol, so too much stress may increase belly fat and put you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders.
Excess cortisol in your bloodstream could also lead to one of two medical conditions – Cushing’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s disease is very rare, affecting only 10 to 15 out of every million people annually, most often women, reports UCLA Health. Cushing’s syndrome is more common, often caused by long-term use of prescription medications that contain cortisol, such as prednisone, which may have side effects of bloating and abdominal weight gain. Because cortisol also helps regulate blood pressure, too much in your system can create hypertension, or high blood pressure. You should see a doctor if you suspect you have one of these conditions.
Controlling Stress Weight Gain Through Diet
The ideal diet for anyone, but especially for people under stress, consists of nutrient-dense whole foods. Under stress, you may crave a sugary doughnut for breakfast, but your body will quickly digest the refined carbohydrates and fat, leaving you hungry again and reaching for more of the same. In a whole-foods diet, the foods you choose – fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, legumes, nuts and seeds – supply the nutrients needed to help you avoid weight gain. For example, a vegetable omelet or Greek yogurt with berries for breakfast provides protein and fiber that create longer-lasting satiety so you don’t overeat.
How you eat is also important for stress and weight control. When you’re stressed, you may skip a meal and then find yourself bingeing later. Having regular meals and snacks throughout the day regulates your cortisol levels and your blood sugar so you don’t reach for unhealthy “pick-me-ups” like candy and soda.
In addition to these techniques, people with Cushing’s disease or syndrome need to monitor their dietary sodium. You may crave fatty, salty foods when you’re under stress, but consuming these will only worsen your blood pressure and water weight gain. Reduce sodium intake to between 1,500 and 2,400 milligrams a day, advises Hillcrest Hospital. You can do this by eating more whole foods like fruits and veggies, which help balance your sodium levels naturally by boosting potassium intake. Avoid fast food and processed foods high in sodium, and season your foods with herbs instead of salt. Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one drink daily for women and two for men.
Herbs for Stress Control
Stress can make you lose sleep and become tired, and when you’re fatigued, you may turn to stimulants like caffeine and sugar for a boost. Though these give you a quick jolt, the effect isn’t long-lasting. You may be able to manage your fatigue over the long term without resorting to repeated blasts of sugary coffee drinks and desserts. Adaptogens are herbal formulas that have been used for centuries in traditional medicine for stress and tiredness; they work by increasing energy levels naturally. Included among adaptogens are Asian ginseng, eleuthero, ashwagandha and rhodiola rosea. You can find them in supplement or tea form in health-food stores.
Adaptogens have some clinical evidence backing their use for stress. In one well-designed clinical trial, subjects who took a high concentration of ashwagandha root twice daily for 60 days scored better on stress tests and had lower cortisol levels than those who took a placebo. The results appeared in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2012. (ref. 11) Another well-designed study found that subjects who supplemented with rhodiola rosea for 28 days experienced less fatigue, better mental performance and lower cortisol than a placebo group. The authors published the results in Planta Medica in 2009.
However, talk to a doctor, naturopath or nutritionist before adding adaptogens to your regimen, as they may not be a good fit for everyone. For example, if you have high blood pressure from Cushing's disease or syndrome, taking ginseng may not be safe. Some adaptogens can cause gastrointestinal problems or worsen insomnia if taken too close to bedtime, and women who are breastfeeding or pregnant should avoid these herbs.
Movement to Manage Stress
Exercise and movement are good ways to manage both stress and weight gain. Aerobic activity and strength training are proven ways to control weight gain, especially around the midsection. The American Council on Exercise recommends you aim for 60 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week, and two to three nonconsecutive days of strength training – weights, resistance bands or yoga – to help shed fat.
But any type of movement can help alleviate stress and also burn calories. Instead of watching TV and eating ice cream mindlessly, get up and dance or take your dog for a walk. As little as 10 minutes at a time of vigorous activity that raises your heart rate can help banish stress at least temporarily, so you don’t turn to food for comfort.
- Association of Women for the Advancement of Research and Education: Cortisol and Weight
- European Eating Disorders Review: Increases in Weight During Chronic Stress are Partially Associated with a Switch in Food Choice Towards Increased Carbohydrate and Saturated Fat Intake
- Nutrition Bulletin: The Effects of Stress on Food Choice, Mood and Bodyweight in Healthy Women; C.J. Roberts
- European Food Information Council: What Makes Us Feel Full?
- Women to Women: Eating to Support Your Adrenal Glands
- UCLA Health: Cushing’s Disease
- Dr. Frank Lipman: Adaptogens: Nature’s Miracle Anti-Stress and Fatigue Fighters
- ACE: How Can I Get Rid of Belly Fat?
- HelpGuide.org: Stress Management