How stress can lead to weight gain


Chronic stress has been shown to have a direct impact on weight gain, due only in part to a tendency to emotionally binge eat. Here, Hilary Simmons explore why this is so.


A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that women who were constantly stressed out actually metabolised fat and sugar differently to women who were under less pressure.

In our earlier evolution, stress was in response to an immediate physical threat, such as tribal warfare or being attacked by a tiger. Although we are now living in a drastically different world, the body hasn’t yet learnt to differentiate between physical and emotional or mental threats; it still releases excess glucose into the bloodstream to provide energy for running or fighting, despite the fact you’re likely dealing with a demanding email and downing your third caffeine hit for the day.

The stress hormone cortisol is released during times of stress and encourages weight deposition, particularly around the middle. “This biggest catch 22 of this is that the more weight you hold, the more cortisol you release in response to the stress,” says health psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. “If stress is not managed properly and continues for an extended period, it can lead to elevated cortisol levels in the body that go on to further increase appetite.”

“Stress is often the underlying cause of why some women hit a weight loss plateau and why some find it simply impossible to shift weight,” adds health coach and wellness blogger Nic Makim. “When people suffer from high stress, the body becomes resistant to important homeostatic functions. In a process comparable to insulin resistance, the sympathetic nervous system activity continues to increase, yet cells become less responsive. The excess of cortisol breaks down muscle mass, causes insulin resistance and surges appetite.”

The fix:

The lesson here is that once stress escalates, it can be tough to stop in its tracks. One stratagem is to make stress management techniques part of your day-to-day life, thus avoiding stress sneaking up on you. Practise mindfulness to learn to pay attention to the moment you’re living in and avoid getting caught up in the emotional ramifications of every decision. Additionally, balance your blood sugar levels throughout the day by eating small amounts of protein with every meal, making those Tim Tam binges less tempting.