Stress Might Be Causing Your Weight Gain

We all know stress isn’t great for our bodies, but could it even be causing weight gain? Turns out there are multiple ways in which stress may be contributing towards the number on the scale.


woman sitting in front of macbook

While our bodies were designed to deal with the occasional stressor, chronic stress can makes things a little dicey. When we experience stress, our body releases a hormone called cortisol. Ordinarily, cortisol is helpful in acute high-stress situations, as it allows our body to go into overdrive to overcome whatever obstacle we’re facing. But when you’re in a constant state of stress from work, relationships, finances, etc, this is when cortisol can become problematic.

Cortisol is created by the adrenal glands located in the kidneys. The release of cortisol naturally causes an increase in appetite as well as an increase in cravings for fatty, sugary, and salty foods. It also changes how we store fat, resulting in more visceral fat (in between our internal organs), which has many negative impacts on our health.

Overall, we know that having chronically high cortisol levels can cause weight gain due to an increase in unhealthy cravings and changes in fat storage.

Decrease in Metabolism

plus size woman measuring hips in gym

The rate of our metabolism indicates how quickly we burn energy (calories). So the higher our metabolic rate, the more calories we’re burning. When we’re burning fewer calories throughout the day, we require a lower intake of calories to maintain weight. So when our metabolic rate is lower, it makes weight loss more difficult.

How does this relate to stress? A study from 2015 showed that women who were exposed to a stressor the day prior burned approximately 104 fewer calories the following day than the women who were exposed to no stressors. In the grand scheme of things, this change could mean a difference of 11 pounds after 1 year.

So essentially, living a stressful lifestyle could decrease your metabolic rate and subsequently cause weight gain over time.

Insulin Resistance

bowl of sugar cubes beside a glucometer and a syringe pen

Stress can also cause insulin resistance. If you’re not familiar with insulin, it’s a hormone that helps the body use and store the sugar that we get from food. Insulin resistance is the cause of type 2 diabetes and can contribute to weight gain.

How does stress impact this? Well, when cortisol is released during stressful situations, it helps mobilize glucose (sugar) stores to provide quick energy. Insulin is working to do the opposite and store glucose that’s circulating in the bloodstream. So needless to say, having a steady stream of insulin is not helping cortisol’s cause. Therefore, cortisol works to inhibit insulin secretion, allowing more sugar to be ready for immediate use in the bloodstream. Cortisol is also working to render the cells insulin resistant, telling them to essentially ignore insulin. This is fine in the short term, but with chronic stress, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the demand for insulin and blood sugar levels remain high.

All in all, this means that cortisol not only impacts cravings and fat metabolism, but also leads to insulin resistance, which can contribute to weight gain.


close up photo of a cheese burger

Ghrelin is another reason that stress can lead to weight gain. Many of us know ghrelin as the “hunger hormone.” When this hormone is released, it signals to our body that we need to eat. We know that ghrelin increases food cravings and reward-driven eating behaviors.

More recently, it’s been shown that ghrelin is released in response to stress. (Some researchers are even looking into ghrelin receptors as a possible mode of treatment for psychiatric disorders.) Because of the additional ghrelin being released into our systems, we’re much more likely to reach for extra food when we’re under stress.

Decreased Motivation

alone bed bedroom blur

In addition to all the hormone changes contributing to weight gain, there is also the more outwardly visible result of stress – decreased motivation. When we’re dealing with a stressful situation, we’re less likely to want to participate in health-promoting behaviors such as exercising, grocery shopping, and cooking. And all of this, of course, can impact our weight.

As you can see, stress can impact our weight in a variety of ways without us even realizing it! The moral of the story is this: stress reduction is an important part of any weight loss journey. You can’t expect to lose weight if you’re not addressing your stress levels. Obviously, some stressors are unavoidable. But if possible, it’s important to eliminate or reduce the major sources of stress in your life. Easier said than done, I know! If you struggle with your weight or emotional eating, fill out my client application and we can talk about how I help my clients overcome this!

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