Sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy diet are major causes of weight gain. It’s simple; if you don’t burn more calories than you consume, you end up putting on weight. Other factors play a role as well. For example, some people gain weight due to a health condition they have, others because they diet all the time and experience yo-yo effect. Chances are high you’ve come across claims that stress can contribute to weight gain, as well. Is the connection real? We have the answer to this important question. Keep reading to find out whether stress can make you put on a few pounds.
Stress and weight gain
For quite some time it was hypothesized that weight gain is associated with chronic stress. For example, back in 1994, the Obesity Researchpublished a study which found that cortisol secretion might represent a mechanism through stress influences abdominal fat distribution. Ever since then, different studies yielded mixed results so it wasn’t easy to confirm or debunk the potential relationship between stress and weight gain.
In order to find out whether this link is real, a team of scientists led by Sarah E. Jackson at the University College London carried out an extensive study. The primary objective was to examine associations between concentrations of hair cortisol and adiposity. Cortisol is a stress hormone while adiposity is fat found in adipose tissue.
Scientists analyzed data from 2527 men and women (aged 54 or older) who were a part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. They published their findings in the journal Obesity and discovered that levels of cortisol in the hair were positively and significantly correlated with larger waist circumference and higher BMI.
Interestingly, higher levels of cortisol were also linked with the persistence of obesity. These findings also indicate that chronic stress is a major contributor to excess weight gain, but it also prevents us from slimming down. This extensive research confirmed that stress can, indeed, make you put on weight, but how does it happen?
Why does stress lead to weight gain?
Adrenal glands produce hormone cortisol which is then released into your bloodstream when you are under stress. Besides suppressing inflammation and regulating your blood pressure, cortisol maintains sufficient supply of blood sugar and boosts your energy levels so that you can function normally during stressful times. Cortisol also takes part in metabolism, body composition and accumulation of body fat.
It is also important to mention that levels of cortisol fluctuate throughout the day. Stress is something we take for granted and usually do nothing hoping it will go away on its own. That doesn’t happen. When left unresolved i.e. chronic stress, it can contribute to a wide array of health conditions, including weight gain. Chronic stress disrupts your metabolism and makes you more susceptible to body fat accumulation and excess weight.
Stress leads to comfort eating
The relationship between stress and weight gain is more complicated than we think; it goes beyond slower metabolism and being prone to body fat. For instance, to most people, a stress-fighting mechanism is eating a lot. You overeat on a daily basis, experience serious cravings, and order pizza (or some other snack) late at night. Of course, you don’t eat because you’re hungry but because you’re trying to cope with your feelings. The body thinks you’ve used all of your calories to deal with stress and requests more of them. It’s a vicious circle that leads to larger waist size.
Also, higher cortisol levels also cause a spike in insulin. Once the blood sugar drops, you crave sweet, sugary, and fatty foods. Instead of eating a fruit or something healthy, you’re more likely to indulge in unhealthy meal option. Cravings are always difficult to resist.
Stress and sleep deprivation go hand in hand. Lack of sleep enhances cortisol levels, while chronic stress can prevent you from falling asleep as well. Your weight is also linked to the quality of sleep.
Evidence shows that sleep deprivation puts you at a higher risk of weight gain and obesity. How? That’s because the lack of good night’s rest disrupts the functioning of leptin and ghrelin, chemicals that regulate your appetite. When you don’t get enough sleep, energy levels drop. As a result, you don’t have enough strength or willpower to exercise or resist temptations that come in the form of unhealthy food.
Stress is a standard part of life and as much as we’d like to avoid it, that’s not how things work. What we can do is to manage stress properly instead of sweeping it under a rug and hoping it will stay here or magically disappear. Not only does stress increase risk of different health conditions, science confirms it can lead to weight gain through multifaceted actions.