Effect of Stress on the Body
Data from the 2017 Stress in America Survey(1) carried out by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that 3 out of 4 Americans experience at least one stress-related symptom in the month before the survey was conducted. The statistic is quite alarming and shows just how stressed everybody is in their lives today. When we are living under constant stress, there are bound to be some impact on our bodies.
In many cases, all this stress can lead to weight gain. This extra weight gain can be a result of overeating, unhealthy food choices, or the body’s natural response to high levels of cortisol (a hormone produced by the body when it is under stress). Regardless of what the reason is for weight gain, it is essential to manage your stress. It would help if you made it a priority to lower your stress levels, thus preventing weight gain due to stress.
The effect of stress on the body tends to creep up on you. You are unlikely to notice the minor changes at first until it starts to have a noticeable effect on the body.
From headaches to feeling irritated to having tight muscles, all are subtle signs that you are stressed. You may feel out of control, overwhelmed, and may even lose your appetite. In some cases, instead of losing your appetite, you may start to overeat as a result of stress. Stress affects your mental, physical, and emotional health.
You may notice some of the effects of stress immediately, but there are some subtle changes, such as an increase in weight, that might not be visible immediately.
Whenever you are under stress, your body responds by increasing the production of cortisol, which is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenal glands in response to a perceived threat by your body. The increasing levels of this hormone prepare your body to ‘fight or flee.’ When the body no longer recognizes a threat, the cortisol levels go back to being normal again.
However, if you are always under stress, then this is going to eventually lead to overexposure to cortisol, which becomes a problem as cortisol is known to act as a major appetite stimulant. This is the reason why so many people end up responding to stress by eating comfort food. As a result of this, high levels of cortisol in the body for a prolonged period of time is known to be associated with obesity.(2)
What makes this cycle even worse is that the excess amount of calories that get consumed when the body’s cortisol levels are at a perpetual high start getting deposited around the midsection of your body.
Additionally, a study done by The Ohio State University in 2015 found that when under a lot of stress, the body slows down the process of metabolism.(3) The study found that the adult women participants reported experiencing one or more stressors during the last 24 hours and burned 104 lesser calories than the non-stressed women participants. In order to calculate how much fewer calories were being burnt while under stress, the researching team interviewed the women about any stressful events they have experienced before giving them a high-fat meal to have. After the meal was finished, the women were made to wear masks that measured the metabolism rate by calculating inhaled and exhaled airflow of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The study concluded that there was a definite slowdown in the women’s metabolism, and the result also showed that women who were stressed had higher levels of insulin as well.
The researchers concluded that over the course of one year, this 104 fewer calories that were burned would add up to almost 11 pounds of weight.
Risks of Stress and Weight Gain
When it becomes difficult for the body to handle such high levels of stress, you are likely to experience severe and long-term health-related challenges.
There are many risks associated with stress-related weight gain as well, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Reproductive problems, even leading to infertility
- A decrease in respiratory and lung function
- Increase in joint pain
There is also evidence of a connection between overweight/obesity and certain types of cancers, including kidney, breast, colon, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer.(4)
Even if you do not experience any physical problems from stress, your mental health can also take a hit. People who are always stressed are known to be at a higher risk of developing depression(5) or anxiety(6) The vicious cycle is that unintentional weight gain due to stress can also increase the risk of depression or anxiety.
If you suspect that you are gaining weight due to stress, then the only way of getting a confirmed diagnosis is by going to a doctor.
Stress-related weight gain can only be diagnosed by a doctor by ruling out other causes of weight gain, such as low thyroid function and also by considering your entire medical history.
How to Reduce Your Stress Levels?
Every one of us is affected by stress at some point or the other in our lives. While some people may experience it several times in a day, others tend to only notice it when it starts to disrupt their day-to-day life.
When you are feeling stressed, there are some small steps you can take to help you calm down and relax. These include:
- Go for a walk and enjoy nature
- Exercise for 15 to 20 minutes
- Listen to music
- Read a book
- Practice mindfulness meditation or any meditation
- Call a friend to talk about what’s bothering you
- Eat healthy food
- Eliminate an item off your to-do list
- Take a 10-minute yoga break
- Spend time with a pet
- Practice 10 minutes of deep breathing
- Go to bed one hour earlier
- Say no to things that are likely to increase your stress
- Ask your family for help
- Stop having caffeine and alcohol
- Try to quit smoking if you are a smoker
- Be kind to yourself
Is There Any Treatment For Stress-Related Weight Gain?
The very first step to treating and managing stress-related weight gain is to first visit your doctor to discuss your health issues. Only after doing a detailed examination and ruling out any other health issues will your doctor be able to help you formulate a plan to manage the weight and also to lower your stress levels.
Apart from implementing the stress managing steps discussed above, your doctor may also recommend that you work with a professional dietitian who specializes in weight loss and stress issues. A registered dietitian will also help you come up with a balanced nutrition plan that will not only help you cut down on comfort foods, but also manage your daily calorie intake.
In order to manage your stress, your doctor may recommend seeing a therapist or a psychologist who will help develop strategies to lower your stress.
If your stress is related to depression or chronic anxiety, then your doctor will prescribe the required medication to deal with the mental issues.
Outlook for People with Stress-related Weight Gain
People who have chronic high levels of stress are also vulnerable to many health challenges, such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Digestive problems
- High blood pressure
- Sleep deprivation
- Cognitive impairment
- Other chronic conditions
Not only does the extra weight increase the risk for diabetes and other chronic health conditions, but it also increases the risk of developing certain cancers.
With proper and timely treatment, including lifestyle modifications and medical interventions, it is possible to lower your stress levels and also reduce weight gain due to stress. This further reduces the risk of developing any long-term health condition because of stress and stress-related weight gain.
Chronic stress can cause you to gain weight. However, there are many natural and effective ways in which you can lower your stress and also manage your weight.
Remember that lifestyle modification is the best way to not only keep your stress under control but to also check your weight. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, meditation for even 10 minutes in a day, and being kind to yourself can all help you reduce stress and manage your weight.
- https://www.apa.org. (2019). By the numbers: Our stressed-out nation. [online] Available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/12/numbers [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
- Björntorp, P. and Rosmond, R., 2000. Obesity and cortisol. Nutrition, 16(10), pp.924-936.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Habash, D.L., Fagundes, C.P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W.B. and Belury, M.A., 2015. Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity. Biological psychiatry, 77(7), pp.653-660.
- Sklar, L.S. and Anisman, H., 1981. Stress and cancer. Psychological bulletin, 89(3), p.369.
- Hammen, C., 2005. Stress and depression. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 1, pp.293-319.
- Shin, L.M. and Liberzon, I., 2010. The neurocircuitry of fear, stress, and anxiety disorders. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(1), p.169.