Those times in your life when you feel like pulling your hair out because there's so much going on? The absolute worst. And it doesn't help that tense times are also the moments when nothing seems to fit right. It begs the question: Does stress really cause weight gain?
Yep, if it feels like your weight seems to fluctuate when you're stressed, it's not in your head. Stress and weight gain are linked, and not just because you may not maintain your typical healthy routine when you're going through it.
Luckily, there are ways to avoid stress-related weight gain. Here, doctors explain exactly how stress can lead to weight gain, and the best things you can do to manage your stress when you're going through rough moments.
So, can stress really cause weight gain?
Yup. Whenever you're stressed, your body kicks into fight or flight mode, causing it to release the hormone adrenaline to help you fight off the perceived threat you're feeling anxious about. To build up energy to deal with this threat, your body also releases glucose, or sugar, into your bloodstream. When your adrenaline wears off and your blood sugar levels drop, the hormone cortisol jumps in to provide you with more energy to continue addressing the threat.
Since cortisol stimulates the release of insulin in order to maintain your blood sugar levels, it can also trigger sugar cravings and your appetite in general. Giving into those cravings could lead to weight gain. In fact, research shows that people with higher weights tend to have an increased cortisol response to stress, says Vidhya Illuri, MD, an adult endocrinologist in Texas.
Not only can cortisol make you hungry, but it can also slow down your metabolism at the same time (another mechanism to help you conserve energy so you can deal with whatever is going on). After having their metabolic rates measured, women who reported one or more stressors the day before burned fewer calories than those who didn't, found a study in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Cortisol can also decrease lean muscle mass, per a study in the The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Muscle burns through fuel faster than fat, meaning it can burn more calories, so when your body is stressed, it wants to hang onto fat instead, so it can save more energy. This decrease in muscle mass can also make it more difficult to manage your weight.
Stress can also impact the hunger hormones leptin and grehlin, which send signals to your brain that determine how hungry you feel, says Adrienne Youdim, MD, an internist specializing in medical weight loss and author of the upcoming book Hungry For More. Basically, cortisol increases these other hormones so you'll make sure to eat enough to, again, deal with any perceived threats. Unfortunately, these mechanisms that kept us alive in the past aren't so useful when your stress is related to a relationship or your boss (threats that don't require weight gain to survive).
Are there other ways stress leads to weight gain?
Yes. Not only can stress influence your cortisol levels, but not managing it can also lead to other unhealthy behaviors that can also lead to weight gain. Here are a few:
Eating food can be a way to soothe difficult emotions for some, which, like in every rom-com, might be why you're more tempted to eat ice cream after a breakup or an argument with your partner. That's because of the dopamine hit, or pleasurable feeling, we get from eating palatable, high-calorie foods, Dr. Youdim says. "When we’re stressed or when we have difficult emotions or an emotional, psychological void, we search for ways to feel pleasure."
But emotional eating can lead to unhealthy eating habits, like snacking at odd hours when you normally wouldn't, or eating a lot more of foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition. Those unhealthy eating habits can then lead to weight gain.
Binge eating is a disorder in which a person eats an unusually large amount of food in one sitting in order to deal with negative emotions. It goes beyond the common kind of emotional eating mentioned above—people who binge eat may also feel guilt and shame for their behavior, or feel like they have a lack of control. While it can certainly lead to weight gain, binge eating can also have detrimental mental health effects. If this is something you're experiencing, it's best to see a doctor who can help you determine the best course of action.
Eating fast food
When you're short on time or just craving something that's quick, but super yummy, your first stop might be your local fast food joint, but fast food options usually aren't the healthiest. "Fast food is made palatable or yummy by adding more salt, more fat, and even sugar," says Dr. Youdim. "But the sugar and the fat trigger the brain in terms of that favorable feeling. That's why it gives you a greater dopamine hit than say a piece of broccoli." Basically, it doesn't have a huge nutritional payoff, and just leaves you wanting more and more.
If your meals aren't nutritious and balanced, it can be easier to experience weight gain. Unfortunately, fast food doesn't always offer the healthiest options for meals.
Drinking more alcohol
If you're stressed after a long day, one of your go-to wind-down routines may include grabbing a cocktail, which makes sense since alcohol is another one of those things which causes the release of the happy hormone, dopamine.
But Dr. Youdim says alcohol's calming effects are temporary. "While alcohol does have an initial sedative or calming effect, it also has a stimulating effect which down the line causes anxiety and also affects our sleep quality, which can then bring about more difficult emotions and weight gain." Drinking also tends to lead to less nutritious, late-night meals too, which, again, can lead to weight gain over time.
Though skipping meals doesn't in and of itself usually cause an increase in weight gain, it can lead to this if skipping a meal means you're consuming excessive calories later in the day, says Dr. Illuri. "Time-restricted eating, which can reduce the number of hours during the day that one consumes calories, can actually help with weight loss," she explains. "However, if skipping meals causes you to make poorer choices regarding nutrition later in the day, time restricted eating may not be right for you."
If skipping meals because you're too busy to squeeze one in causes you to eat waaay more at another time, then this can certainly lead to weight gain.
Though exercising less won't necessarily lead to weight gain, it can lead to other factors of stress that can affect your hormone levels and other aspects of your health. "Weight loss is actually more about nutrition instead of exercise," says Dr. Illuri. "However, exercise is very important for cardiovascular health and building muscle and keeping bones healthy."
Strength-training in particular is associated with building muscle mass, and muscle burns more calories than fat, so if you go from working out regularly to not much at all, your body fat percentage could go up.
Not only is getting a good amount of sleep important for your general health since your body uses that time to recharge, but not doing so can also mess with your circadian rhythm, or your body's natural internal clock, says Dr. Illuri, which controls the release of all kinds of hormones that impact weight (you're more likely to release ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, when your circadian rhythm is off). If you're skimping on sleep, you may also struggle to find the energy to chase healthy goals during the day, like working out and meal prepping.
How can you lose stress-related weight gain?
Here are a few ways you can avoid and address any extra pounds you've gained from stress.
Focus on exercise
When you exercise, you're expending energy that can burn off calories. But there are also a ton of other benefits to exercising, including improving your cardiovascular health and increasing your endorphin levels, which can fight off stress and pain.
When your body is stressed, it wants to hang onto fat instead, so it can save more energy.
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should get at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise a week, or the equivalent of a combo of these two. Working out can also increase your threshold for stress, says Dr. Youdim. "Probably the most compelling reason for exercise is that studies have shown that when you can tolerate physiological stress, like when you push yourself physically, you're better able to tolerate psychological stress."
When you exercise, your body can reduce its levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, according to Harvard Health. So not only can working out help you lose and stress-related weight gain, it can also combat the source: stress.
Cook healthier versions of your favorite comfort foods
The best diets don't deprive you of your favorite foods (which you'll definitely want when you're stressed), and if you like what you're eating chances are you'll make similar eating choices regularly. You can skimp out on added calories by making healthier versions of your favorite comfort foods, sometimes by just swapping out a few ingredients.
"A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds with minimum refined sugars and processed foods is considered the most healthful diet," says Dr. Illuri, who posts healthy recipes on her own Instagram. So you'll want to stick to ingredients that won't make your meal a calorie bomb. "This will help to promote a healthy weight and reduce to risk for chronic disease," she says.
Keep a food journal
Keeping a food journal can be a form of accountability. A food journal can be an app, an actual notebook, or whatever else helps you keep tract of what you're eating. Seeing that information visually can make it easier to meet your goals when it comes to improving your eating habits.
Dr. Youdim actually recommends keeping track of your moods when you're eating something. "More important than just writing down when you eat and what you eat is writing down why you eat. Is it true hunger, is it boredom, is it anxiety, is it sadness, is it excitement?" This can help you make healthy changes that can keep you out of stress-related weight gain cycle. "Notice your patterns and use that as your personal blueprint to make changes to your template," says Dr. Youdim.
Try mindful eating habits
Oftentimes when you eat, the focus is usually on how you feel when you're actually eating the food. For example, if you're eating a burger you might feel joyful because you're really liking the food. But Dr. Youdim says it's also important to focus on how you feel after you're done with your meal. If you feel lethargic or shameful after most meals, it's probably a good idea to reflect on your relationship with food.
Mindful eating also means paying attention to your hunger cues. Know the difference between when you're really hungry and when you're just bored. Mindful eating can help you avoid using food as a stress-coping mechanism.
Drinking more water can keep your satiety level up. "Staying hydrated will help to avoid confusing the feeling of thirst for hunger. This can reduce unnecessary snacking," says Dr. Illuri. Since drinking water helps physically fill up space in your stomach, this decreases appetite while it reduces your thirst.
Prioritize your sleep
"Sleep is incredibly important to have a good metabolism," says Dr. Illuri. Try to avoid eating meals late at night, develop a wind-down routine to help you get ready for bed at a decent time, and work on your sleep hygiene so you can get a full night's rest as often as possible.
Incorporate stress relief and self-care into your day-to-day life
If you don't address the stress itself, then your body will continue to fall into a stress-related weight gain cycle. The way you manage your stress can be personal to you and your preferences, whether it's practicing meditation or just engaging in more me time. "Meditation, in general, is a great strategy because it allows us to create some space between the trigger or emotion and our reaction and in that space we have a little bit more time to choose how we're going to respond to our emotion," says Dr. Youdim. It can help you make better conscious choices, for example taking a walk instead of hitting the fridge when you're not feeling your best.
Dr. Illuri also says that there have been studies showing that massages, in particular, can reduce cortisol levels. When 53 adults underwent regular Swedish massages for a total of five weeks, they experienced decreased levels of cortisol, found a study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Check in on your mental health
This is incredibly important, says Dr. Illuri. "There is a large psychological aspect to increasing cortisol levels and that can also increase hunger hormones. This is where the term 'stress-eating' comes from." Actively taking care of your mental health, whether it's with the help of a professional like a therapist, or making time for friends and family, can help you clear your mind of stress, both in the short-term and long-term, and keep your cortisol levels low.
Dr. Youdim says a heartfelt connection with other people, pets, or nature can also help you get a dose of dopamine, your feel-good hormone, without leaning on unhealthy foods.
The bottom line: Stress can lead to the release of hormones that can cause weight gain, and often causes behaviors that also lead to weight gain and make it harder to lose or maintain weight. Maintaining stress-reducing activities and self-care is key for your physical and mental health.
Jasmine Gomez is the Associate Commerce Editor at Women’s Health and covers health, fitness, sex, culture and cool products. She enjoys karaoke and dining out more than she cares to admit.