You’re stressed out lately and you’ve been comfort eating like there’s no tomorrow. Then “tomorrow” comes, and your belly is a little bigger. Is it just the result of extra calories you’re consuming or is there something more to stress and weight gain? The answer is a bit of both. “Stress provides the perfect storm for gaining weight and having difficulties losing weight down the road,” explains Dr. Bartolome Burguera, an endocrinologist and chairman of Cleveland Clinic‘s Endocrinology and Metabolism Institute.
Here are five ways that stress makes you gain weight.
Chronic Stress Triggers Food Cravings
When you’re stressed, you may want to chow down on junk foods. That could be due to increases in the stress hormone cortisol and the “hunger” hormone ghrelin, which stimulate appetite and promote the intake of fat and sugar (carbohydrates). So there you are, instinctively reaching for pizza, burgers or mac-n-cheese — and you may find you enjoy it. “Ghrelin plays a big role in hedonic food behavior (pleasure eating). It makes you feel better after you eat,” Burguera says.
Plus, high-sugar foods may contribute to increased levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, inhibiting activity in brain regions that produce and process anxiety, and literally staving off stress. Unfortunately, the effect is brief, typically resulting in one junk food binge after the other. That can drive up blood sugar, reduce satiety (a feeling of fullness), decrease metabolism (your energy expenditure) and pack on pounds.
Chronic Stress Makes Insulin Less Effective
We need the hormone insulin to get blood sugar into cells. But insulin may not work as well when you have chronic stress, which can lead to fat storage, obesity and an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes.
“Studies show that prolonged physical and even mental stress can lead to an accumulation of harmful inflammatory compounds called free radicals in our bodies, damaging cells and leading to a decreased release of insulin as well as an overall inability to accept and use insulin inside of our cells. We’ve seen a rise in both physical and mental stressors over the past two years during the pandemic. Interestingly, increases in new diabetes diagnoses have also been reported over this same time period. The direct cause of the rise in diabetes is unclear, but it’s likely that some component of stress-induced insulin resistance has taken part,” says Gabrielle Gambino, a registered dietitian with Weill Cornell Medical Center.
[ Read: Vitamins for Stress: Do They Work? ]
Chronic Stress Leads to More Belly Fat
If you’re looking at a bigger belly, it might be due in part to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Cortisol increases the accumulation of fat,” Burguera says.
In particular, cortisol contributes to abdominal or visceral fat — the kind deposited around your vital organs. “Visceral fat is more prone to cause insulin resistance and diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, increases in cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease,” Burguera says.
Ghrelin also contributes to fat formation. “In the hunting and gathering times, this was a great thing for human survival. Fat stores could be used in long times of fasting, so increased nutritional intake due to stress was beneficial. However, in 2021, not many of us are going to be hunting and gathering for days at a time. The closest I get to this is navigating the aisles of my grocery store on Sunday mornings,” Gambino says.
Chronic Stress Leads to Insomnia
Cortisol isn’t just a stress hormone; it helps regulate other aspects of health, including sleep. Healthy cortisol levels help wake you in the morning. But high cortisol levels are associated with interrupted or decreased sleep and increases in fat storage and hunger. One study by British researchers, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggested that people who were partially sleep-deprived consumed almost 400 calories more per day than people who were not sleep-deprived.
If you’re tired from not sleeping, you may not feel like being physically active, either. “We may not be moving as much as usual due to fatigue from not sleeping, and this also drives down the amount of fuel burned during the day, leading to weight gain,” Gambino says.
Meanwhile, sleep deprivation contributes to chronic stress, creating a vicious cycle.
Chronic Stress Sabotages Your Workout
Stress shortchanges the effects of your exercise routine. In one study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers with the Yale Stress Center at the Yale University School of Medicine found that psychological stress inhibits muscle recovery following strenuous resistance exercise. This may be in part because cortisol is a catabolic (muscle-degrading) hormone, blunting the effects of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone.
[ See: Tips to Manage Stress at Work. ]
Losing Stress Weight
It takes a multi-faceted approach to lose the pounds you’ve gained from chronic stress. One strategy is to eat a healthier diet. “Because stress revs up inflammation, we want to maximize the intake of foods with antioxidants that lessen levels of inflammation and protect cells from damage,” Gambino says. “Aim for the rainbow of fruits and vegetables.”
She also suggests that you keep your blood sugar as stable as possible by avoiding fried, sugary, starchy foods and eating more fiber.
Rich sources of fiber include:
— Whole grains, such as quinoa or brown rice.
— Whole-grain bread, such as whole wheat or oat bread.
— Nuts, such as almonds, cashews or walnuts.
— Seeds, such as flaxseeds or chia seeds.
— Green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli or kale.
In addition to eating a healthy diet, Burguera says you’ll need to:
— Get more sleep. Aim for at least seven hours per night.
— Exercise. Aerobic exercise, like a brisk walk, can help lower your stress hormones and blood pressure.
— Practice stress reduction. This can include meditation or yoga.
And above all, try to eliminate the causes of stress. “Write down your stressors,” Burguera advises. “What can you do about them? Who can help you? If you can control your stressors, cortisol and insulin will go down and your weight will improve.”
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