Whether it's the pandemic, burnout from work or relationship issues, stress is a part of everyday life. And while some stress is normal, chronic stress can take a toll on your health. Case in point: your weight. Indeed, stress can cause weight loss or gain.
Let's first clarify that temporary stress can be a good thing: Acute stress can help you stay alert to your surroundings and may even stimulate your body's ability to recover in situations of short-term strain, like surgery, according to Stanford Medicine.
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But when stress becomes chronic, it can negatively affect your body and mind, per Stanford Medicine. That's because today, stress often manifests as a response to mentally taxing situations, like trauma, grief or burnout (or all three at once, in the case of the coronavirus pandemic).
Living in a prolonged state of stress can literally change your body's functioning, which can have an effect on your weight, per Stanford Medicine. It can also lead to coping mechanisms that likewise contribute to weight changes.
Here, we talked to experts to learn about the connections between stress and weight gain or loss (plus their tips for how to cope).
Chronic stress is linked to conditions like hypertension, diabetes, heart failure, addiction and mood and anxiety disorders, according to Yale Health. As a result, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you have prolonged stress to help prevent long-term health issues.
1. Stress Can Tank Your Activity Levels
"Stress affects everybody differently, even though it works the same in everybody," says Eric First, MD, co-founder and chief scientific officer at R3SET, a company dedicated to mitigating the effects of long-term stress on the body.
And stress can cause weight loss or gain indirectly: For instance, some people respond to stress by becoming sedentary, according to Harvard Health Publishing. After all, who among us didn't hole up on the couch for a Netflix marathon (or two, or three...) at the start of the pandemic?
Activity can also help regulate your mood, improve mental health and reduce stress, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. As a result, not exercising can contribute to higher stress and weight gain without overeating.
2. Stress Can Mess With Your Sleep
Chronic stress can also get in the way of a solid snooze (hello, coronasomnia), according to Harvard Health Publishing.
This side effect of stress can lead to weight gain because lack of sleep is linked to higher calorie intake and cravings for high-calorie foods (think: sweet, salty and starchy snacks), per February 2014 research in Nature Communications.
Lack of sleep can also affect your memory, judgment and mood, per the American Psychological Association. When your brain isn't able to perform at its best and you have trouble regulating your mood, it can pave the way for more stress and — you guessed it — more poor sleep.
Sleep deprivation can also take a toll on your metabolism: Still-relevant August 2010 research in the International Journal of Endocrinology found that not getting enough sleep can alter the hormones that help regulate appetite and metabolism, which can contribute to weight gain.
3. Stress Can Affect Your Diet
Stress can also change your relationship with food.
On one hand, 50 percent of us eat more when we're stressed, which can lead to weight gain, says Brian Fertig, MD, associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. And remember, not getting enough sleep is also linked to eating more calories and processed foods, per the Nature Communications research.
Stress also triggers your body to release the hormone cortisol, which helps you stay on high alert so you can handle a dangerous situation, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Cortisol can likewise trigger cravings for sugary, salty and fatty foods — quick calories that provide fuel for fighting or fleeing a stressor, but that can also contribute to weight gain, per the Cleveland Clinic.
On the other hand, the remaining 50 percent of us eat less during times of stress, Dr. Fertig says. This is why stress and anxiety can cause weight loss for some people.
4. Stress Can Slow Your Metabolism
"Stress affects every system, but mainly it comes down to the nervous, endocrine and immune systems — all three of those work almost as a unit," Dr. First says. "[If] those three systems become unbalanced over time, they cause the deficiency of different mediators and different hormones in the body, and your metabolism."
Indeed, an April 2015 study in Biological Psychiatry found that people who reported a stressful event in the last 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than those who did not.
The research also found that those who experienced a stressful event in the 24 hours before eating a high-fat meal had less calorie burn than those who weren't stressed — a lack of calorie burn so significant that it could amount to 11 pounds of weight gain in a year.
However, this research only included 58 people, so larger studies are needed to better establish this link.
Stress can also slow your metabolism indirectly. Behaviors associated with stress — like not getting enough sleep — alter our body's ability to regulate metabolism and appetite, which may contribute to weight gain, per a November 2019 report in the Journal of Lipid Research.
Similarly, going from a consistent diet to a disrupted one — whether the disruptions are snacking on more processed foods or skipping meals — can slow down your metabolism, according to the University of Louisville.
5. Cortisol Can Prompt Your Body to Store More Fat
The cortisol that revs you up to deal with a stressful situation can help you escape temporary danger, but chronically elevated cortisol levels are linked to weight gain.
More specifically: "Elevated cortisol levels directly contribute to central abdominal weight gain," Dr. Fertig says. In other words, long-term stress can prompt you to store more belly fat.
6. Cortisol Can Affect Insulin Regulation
When you're stressed, your body prepares itself to fight or flee by releasing stress hormones like cortisol. This can make it hard for another hormone — insulin — to do its job properly, resulting in a condition called insulin resistance, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Insulin resistance prompts your body to produce more insulin in an attempt to keep your blood sugar levels stable. But this can lead to weight gain, which can in turn make your insulin levels worse, per the Cleveland Clinic. Prolonged insulin resistance can also up your risk for conditions like prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Insulin resistance can also send the appetite centers of the brain into a bit of a funk, Dr. Fertig says, which may contribute to craving processed food or eating more than you might otherwise. And eating sugary, processed snacks can disturb a component of your metabolism called redox and potentially promote another wave of insulin resistance.
If you regularly show signs of high blood sugar from insulin resistance — like blurred vision or increased thirst, hunger and urination — visit your doctor to help control the condition and prevent prediabetes or diabetes, per the Cleveland Clinic.
How to Deal With Stress
Weight isn't the only reason it's important to manage high stress levels: A prolonged stress response is linked to increased risk for metabolic and chronic diseases, Dr. Fertig says.
Per the Cleveland Clinic, set yourself up to better handle stress — and offset its downstream effects, like weight changes — by practicing the following habits:
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Understanding the stress response"
- Yale Medicine: "Chronic Stress"
- American Psychological Association: "Stress and Sleep"
- International Journal of Endocrinology: "Sleep and metabolism"
- Stanford Medicine: "Good stress, bad stress"
- Biological Psychiatry: "Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity"
- Journal of Lipid Research: "Four nights of sleep restriction suppress the postprandial lipemic response and decrease satiety"
- Mayo Clinic: "Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Benefits of Exercise"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Sleep Do I Need?"
- University of Louisville: "Perils of Skipping Meals"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Insulin Resistance"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Stress"
- Nature Communications: "The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.