Is Stress Causing Your Weight Gain?

Young disgust female after trying piece of cake, healthy diet concept, pregnancy food.

You’re under pressure at work or home and the stress is beginning to show. Perhaps you have noticed some weight gain, specifically that bulge around your middle that wasn’t there before. Chronic stress may be one of the culprits.

When you are under a lot of stress certain “fight or flight” stress hormones, cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine kick into gear. Norepinephrine tells your body to stop producing insulin so there is plenty of fast-acting glucose for energy. Epinephrine relaxes the muscles in your stomach and intestines and decreases blood flow to these organs to allow for more blood flow to the muscles and brain. Once the stressor is passed, cortisol tells the body to return to its normal functioning. However, when you are chronically stressed your cortisol level goes up and stays there, impacting your waistline and health.

Chronic stress and cortisol contribute to weight gain in the following ways.

  • Metabolism. Too much cortisol can slow your metabolism, making dieting more difficult.
  • Cravings. Increased levels of cortisol also increase insulin levels which causes a drop in blood sugar and a craving for more fatty, salty and sugary foods.
  • Blood sugar. Cortisol diminishes the effectiveness of insulin while raising blood glucose levels. This insulin resistance contributes to weight gain.
  • Fat storage. Chronic stress affects where we store fat. Cortisol tends to take fat from healthier areas, like your butt and hips, and move it to your abdomen which has more cortisol receptors. In other words, it takes healthy peripheral fat and converts it to unhealthy visceral fat (the fat that surrounds your organs). This increased belly fat makes one more susceptible to heart attacks, strokes, metabolic syndrome, and higher LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

So how do you lose belly fat? Lose it by eating healthy, whole, minimally processed foods, and working out. Exercise is the best method for lowering cortisol levels in response to stress and has the added benefit of burning calories to stimulate weight loss. Practices such as yoga and meditation are among several self-care strategies that can also help to reduce overall stress. Do not be tempted to try a dietary supplement that claims to lower cortisol and enhance weight loss. There is no independent, peer-reviewed research that has shown that these products are of any value.

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