Yes, Stress Can Cause Weight Gain! Here’s Why This Happens, And What You Can Do About It

Jun 3, 20248 min
A young women is stressed after knowing - Yes, Stress Can Cause Weight Gain!

Yes, Stress Can Cause Weight Gain! Here’s Why This Happens, And What You Can Do About It 

Many of us come across people who seem to be doing everything right to take care of their health - they work out regularly, eat healthy, stay hydrated - yet, are not able to lose weight.

While some medical conditions like hypothyroidism and PCOS may contribute to weight gain despite healthy habits, stress plays a significant role in this too.

Stress can not only make us gain weight, it can also make it difficult to lose excess weight. Let’s see how. 

Can stress affect weight gain or weight loss?

Our body and mind are more deeply interconnected than we realize. When we are under stress, certain biomarkers shift in response. While this is meant to help us fight or escape the stressful situation, unmanaged stress can take a toll on the body.

Among other things, stress can lead to changes in weight. While chronic stress can lead to weight gain, acute stress is more often associated with reduced appetite and subsequent weight loss

Why do we gain weight from stress?

Stress is a biological event. It impacts the body in ways that it can change our physiology. The physiological changes we see in stress-induced weight gain are mainly due to:

  • Increased cortisol level
  • Metabolic disturbances
  • Changes in diet 
  • High and chronic stress can also take a hit on our motivation to stay active, leading to a sedentary lifestyle. This further contributes to weight gain 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that the body releases when we perceive a threat. Cortisol is so instrumental in the body’s stress response that it’s also known as the ‘stress hormone’.

The role of cortisol is to help us manage stress. It does so by regulating automatic body functions such as digestion, heart rate, respiration and immunity during times of stress.

For example, in high-stress situations, our digestion slows down so that the physical reserves can be used to either fight or flee. Adrenaline and cortisol play a role in this. 

When the stressful situation has passed, cortisol levels should come down. However, in chronic stress situations, this doesn’t happen. Due to consistently elevated cortisol levels, the functions that cortisol regulates go haywire, and this eventually contributes to the host of health issues associated with high stress. 

Cortisol and Sugar Cravings

Elevated cortisol levels are also responsible for the kind of cravings we experience when we’re stressed out. Most often, we crave foods that are high in sugar content. Along with sugar, we may also crave ultra-processed food which may be high in calories but has little to no nutritional value. 

Cortisol and Sugar Cravings

Cortisol and Metabolism

While optimum levels of cortisol are important for healthy metabolism, maintenance of blood sugar levels, fighting inflammation and maintenance of immunity, if cortisol is elevated for a long period of time, it can have adverse effects on metabolism. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can slow down our metabolism.

Elevated cortisol has also been shown to be associated with insulin resistance, and lowered immunity, leaving one susceptible to a host of illnesses including type 2 diabetes, hypertension and autoimmune disorders.

How can you tell if stress is causing weight gain?

Because stress leads to changes in hormones and metabolism, the weight gain caused by it is often distinguishable from other types of weight gain. High, unmanaged stress makes us crave sugary food, or ‘comfort food’ that is calorie-rich, but nutrition-deficient. If you’re craving sugary treats or reaching out for a snack even when you’re not particularly hungry, chances are, you are ‘stress eating’.

But, it’s important to keep in mind that even if you don’t give in to these cravings, you can still gain weight because of stress. The other giveaway of stress-induced weight gain is where it appears in the body. Weight gain caused by stress tends to show up most prominently in the abdominal area.

In women, a high waist-to-hip ratio is also seen when the weight gain is caused by stress. All of this is related to elevated cortisol levels. If stress is not managed, cortisol levels remain high, and this excess weight becomes difficult to cut, lending it the name of ‘stubborn fat’. 

How much weight can you gain from stress?

The amount of weight one can gain because of stress depends on various factors, including how much and what one is eating (that is, total calorie intake), as well as the metabolic rate. But, what we do know for sure is that chronic stress impacts the metabolic system, and this may lead to one being more vulnerable to gaining weight even when they consume fewer calories. 

What are the risks of stress and weight gain?

Stress is a part of life. Stress simply means that we are being challenged in some way, and sometimes, this can be a positive thing. For example, exam stress can fuel us to work hard and study better. The kind of stress we may feel before a presentation or an interview can motivate us to prepare well. Stress, when not too high, can be a motivating factor.

However, there are certain types of stressors, or stressful events, that can be damaging. Studies have shown that the five most stressful life events are: 

  1. Death of a loved one 
  2. Divorce
  3. Migration or relocation
  4. Major illness or injury 
  5. Job loss 

These events put us at risk of what may be called ‘negative’ stress, or distress. This is the type of stress that can have adverse effects on our health and well-being. There are also certain chronic situations that put us at risk of such negative stress. These include: 

  1. Abusive or toxic relationships 
  2. Loneliness and isolation 
  3. Workplace stress
  4. Financial stress or poverty 
  5. Chronic illnesses 

When we find ourselves in a stressful situation - acute or chronic - it’s important to learn to tackle its impact on our mental and physical well-being. We will discuss this more in the following sections. 

But before we move on, let’s look at some factors that may make us more vulnerable to weight gain during stressful situations. These include: 

1.Sedentary lifestyle:

When we are in distress, it may feel difficult to stay physically active. But, doing so can stave off some of the adverse effects of stress. If an intense workout regime feels too much, a simple daily walk can help us feel more regulated. 

2.Poor diet: 

As we have seen, chronic stress can lead to cravings for sugary and ultra-processed foods. While it may be difficult to not give in to these cravings ever, it can be helpful to start including some nutritious meals in our daily diet. 

poor lifestyle like bad sleep factors that may make us more vulnerable to weight gain during stressful situations

3.Poor sleep:

Sleep is one of the pillars of well-being. Understandably, high stress can impact our sleep cycle as well. In the following sections, we will look at some ways you can stay on track with your sleep. 

How stress is associated with other health conditions

Stress is the root cause of many health conditions. This is because stress engages the entire body, and shifts its resources from being utilized for thriving in a state of wellness, to surviving the perceived threat. 

Stress has been seen to contribute to many mental and physical conditions, including: 

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Asthma
  4. Hypertension 
  5. Cardiovascular diseases
  6. Diabetes
  7. Cancer 
  8. Auto-immune disorders 
  9. Rheumatoid arthritis 
  10. Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal issues 
  11. Chronic pain 

It is important to remember, though, that the body and mind have a bi-directional relationship. The manifestation of illnesses is complex and usually involves an interplay of internal and external influences. Having said that, high, unmanaged stress seems to make us more vulnerable to health conditions. 

In order to prevent stress-related weight gain, it’s important to learn to keep stress levels manageable. As we have seen above, when our body is in a stress state, hormone levels elevate to help the body combat the stressful event. Weight gain occurs when these hormone levels remain high. So, in order to prevent weight gain, we have to help the body return to homeostasis, or in simple words, we have to ‘de-stress’. 

De-stressing or managing our stress levels is important even if you have already gained some weight. Keeping our stress levels low will help the body heal from the impact, and eventually help in losing some of the weight we gained. 

#7 Tips on How to Reduce Stress[Cortisol] induced weight gains in 2024

1.Movement: 

Focus on simple, relaxing movements. This is important because certain forms of exercise or movement can, in fact, further increase cortisol levels in the body. Practices that activate the parasympathetic nervous system -  like yoga, walking and swimming - are good ways to help the body de-stress. 

couple-training-outdoors to Reduce Stress[Cortisol] induced weight gains

2.Mindful eating and a nutritious, balanced diet:

It’s not just what we eat, but also how we eat that matters. Try to treat your meal times as sacred, and practice ‘mindful eating’ where you’re fully present and engaged with the food you’re consuming. Try to stick to food that is not processed, and contains all important macro-nutrients. 

3.Maintaining sleep hygiene:

Along with getting enough numbers of hours of sleep, try to also get good quality sleep. Having a bedtime routine can help with this. The environment of your bedroom and the comfort of your mattress and pillow also help us sleep well. 

4.Practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques

High stress makes it difficult to stay in the present, or truly relax. Exercises like 54321 meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can train the body to stay present and relaxed. 

5.Heal your relationships

Our physical and mental health are closely linked to relational health. Increasingly, studies are showing that healthy, supportive relationships can protect us from many of the ill effects of stress, and help us live longer and healthier lives. 

6.Work on improving work-life balance: 

Ultimately, a lot of management of stress or stress-induced health conditions, has to do with building a lifestyle that is sustainable and healthy. Work-life balance is an important part of this. 

7.Get the right professional help

It’s always a good idea to work with a mental health professional to understand how to manage stress better. You may also wish to engage a yoga and meditation teacher. If you’ve already gained some weight, it may be helpful to consult an endocrinologist. 

Conclusion

While stress is a part of life and can sometimes be helpful in making us do better, chronic and unmanaged stress only leads to more problems for our health and well-being. The good news is that we can learn to manage it and prevent some of the impact it may have on our health. Like most health-related concerns, with stress-induced weight gain, too, prevention is better than cure. 

At Mave Health’s Therapy Club, you can find India’s top mental health professionals to help you manage stress in a better way, and build a lifestyle that brings you closer to a state of well-being. 

References: 

Bains, G. (2021, October 21). Can your stress level impact your physical fitness? Healthshots. 

Cortisol and Weight Gain: Is There a Connection? (2020, September 29). Healthline. 

‌Losing weight because of stress? What to know. (2020, May 28).. 

Marks, H. (2023, October 8). Stress Symptoms. WebMD. 

‌Mayo Clinic. (2019, March 19). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. 

‌Moyer, A. E., Rodin, J., Grilo, C. M., Cummings, N., Larson, L. M., & Rebuffé-Scrive, M. (1994). Stress-Induced Cortisol Response and Fat Distribution in Women. Obesity Research, 2(3), 255–262. 

Scott, K. A., Melhorn, S. J., & Sakai, R. R. (2012). Effects of Chronic Social Stress on Obesity. Current Obesity Reports, 1(1), 16–25. 

‌Simply thinking of your partner can help you manage stress. (2019, January 24). 

‌Stress and weight gain: The connection and how to manage it. (2023, August 29). 

The Top 5 Most Stressful Life Events. (n.d.). 

Author's Profile picture
Prachi Gangwani
Therapist | Yoga Teacher | Author of Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India