Many factors are at play when it comes to our weight. Food (the types eaten and how much), exercise (how often we move our body), and genetics can all play a role in whether a person gains or loses weight easily, or how well they are able to maintain a healthy weight. Metabolism – the rate at which we burn or store calories – can also influence weight.
There are other lesser-known factors that contribute to weight loss or gain just as strongly as those mentioned above. One such factor that many people either don’t know about, or pay little attention to, is stress levels. Read on to learn how stress can influence weight in terms of both loss and gain.
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. Whether those stresses are small, such as being stuck in traffic while late for work, or large, such as losing a loved one, feeling stressed from time to time is unavoidable. Typically, passing stressors don’t do much in the way of weight gain or loss, because the body can cope well with the type of stress that doesn’t stick around. However, when chronic stress strikes, it’s a whole different story.
Chronic stress is characterized as consistent and unrelenting periods of high stress that tend to last for three months or more. People who experience chronic stress often find themselves dealing with other physical symptoms such as aches and pains or the inability to get a good night’s rest. When a person deals with this level of stress for a long time, several physiological changes can occur.
One such change is the level of cortisol in the blood. Cortisol is referred to as the primary stress hormone. In the natural stress response, cortisol raises and encourages the release of more glucose into the blood stream. That glucose is then used by the brain and bodily tissues as a way to repair injury. It also stops the functioning of certain processes that could hinder a person’s ability to fight or flee in a dangerous situation.
During a chronic stress situation, levels of cortisol stay high and the processes that are hindered as a form of protection remain that way, even when there’s no threat or danger. This leads to various malfunctions within the body, one of which can affect your weight.
Chronic stress can affect your weight in different ways because of the high levels of cortisol you’re experiencing. High levels of cortisol change the way many processes in the body function and can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight by either encouraging weight loss or weight gain. But how does stress cause weight gain or loss, exactly?
Cortisol and weight gain often go hand in hand because of the way the hormone affects the body. When a person is constantly under stress, they may experience sugar cravings because the body is using up all the glucose it has stored in order to be ready for the perceived threat.
However, when there is no threat and that glucose storage is getting used up, the body will crave more and more sugar because it won’t have any left to power up the areas needed for the fight or flight response. This increase in sugar cravings can lead to a person eating more sugary foods that cause weight gain. The body also stores sugar after stressful situations so that it’s well prepared, and if these stores don’t get used as energy, they can end up on your waistline.
If you’re trying to lose weight but are constantly stressed, cortisol will make that difficult, too. This is because cortisol slows down your metabolism. When the metabolism slows, less calories are burned on a day-to-day basis and you will find it increasingly difficult to lose weight.
If you want to stop the cortisol weight gain, you will first have to lower your levels of cortisol – that is, by reducing your stress levels. This can be easier said than done, but one proven way you can do this is by practicing mindful meditation. Studies have shown that the practice of meditation can effectively lower cortisol levels in people who perform it regularly. Regular moderate exercise may also help to lower cortisol levels over time, leaving you less stressed in the long run and more able to either lose weight or maintain your weight over time.
Research has shown that other activities and stress reduction techniques can also help to lower cortisol levels within the body. These activities include:
On the opposite side of the spectrum, stress can also cause a person to lose weight. While most of the clinical research surrounding chronic stress and weight focuses heavily on weight gain, there are some reasons why stress could also cause a person to lose weight, including a loss of appetite or an inability to sit still (causing more calories to be burned throughout the day).
Chronic stress is bad for the body in many ways, and weight fluctuation is one of them. In addition to eating well and exercising, the best thing you can do to maintain a healthy weight is undertake stress management/reduction techniques that can help you curb chronic stress.