Weight gain has many underlying causes but one of the most common is something we all experience: stress. Whether it's the, mild temporary kind caused by a traffic jam or major and chronic, triggered by a traumatic life event — stress is no friend to your waistline. It can set off physical and emotional changes that drive you to eat more, crave less nutritious, fattening comfort foods — and even gain weight much more easily.
Stress-eating and cortisol
"Stress drives up levels of a hormone called cortisol in the blood," says Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that helps to regulate your metabolism. It also plays a role in blood sugar management and memory. When levels of cortisol rise, it can promote inflammation and may spur the body to start stockpiling fat around the midsection. "Stress might also disrupt sleep and drive people to seek out food when they wouldn't normally — such as in the middle of the night," says Dr. Stanford.
In earlier times this biological reaction to stress may have been beneficial, helping the body store up fuel for tough times ahead. But today, there's typically no famine to outlast, no bear to outrun. Consequently, stress may just lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Stress feels familiar to many of us. Yet some evidence suggests women are disproportionately affected by stress. A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that women reported higher stress levels on average than men (5.2 out of 10 points for women, compared with 4.5 for men). Further, women were more likely than men to say that their stress levels were increasing (32% versus 25%).
Other factors matter, too. For example, the 2015 APA survey reports that average stress levels were highest among Hispanic adults versus all other races and ethnicities polled (5.9 vs 5.1 out of 10 points), and higher among people who identified as LGBT versus people who did not (6.0 vs 5.0 out of 10 points). Adults with disabilities reported extreme stress levels — 8, 9, or 10 on the 10-point scale — nearly twice as often as adults without disabilities.
Successfully managing stress may help control weight
While stress is an inevitable part of life for many people, the weight gain that can accompany it isn't. Changing your response to stress and adopting strategies to reduce it can keep the numbers on your scale from moving in the wrong direction, says Dr. Stanford.
These five strategies may help:
Burn off tension. Exercise is a crucial component of stress management, because physical activity can actually reduce cortisol levels. But you will find excuses to avoid workouts if you dread them. Finding an activity you love — your "soulmate workout," as Dr. Stanford calls it — can help you maintain the regular physical activity you need in order to dissolve daily stress. For some people it might be yoga, for others, high-intensity exercise — or a combination of the two.
Prioritize sleep. A lack of sleep can increase the amount of stress hormones circulating in your body. So ensuring you get enough restful slumber is crucial to managing stress effectively. "Avoid screen time at least an hour prior to bedtime," says Dr. Stanford. This includes your smartphone. The blue light emitted by smartphones can interfere with sleep.
Change your outlook. The amount of stress you feel is based on circumstances and your perception of those circumstances. Two people may do the same job, yet only one perceives it as stressful. People also vary in their ability to manage stress, based on personality or early life experiences. Working to change the way you think about challenges can help reduce stress.
Plan ahead. If you are entering a high-stress period, prepare by setting up supports. "One woman I worked with gained weight at the same time each year around the anniversary of her child's death," says Dr. Stanford. If you're getting ready for a stressful event or facing a work deadline, seek out additional support to help you through. This might include adjusting your schedule to add extra exercise, or making a healthy eating plan to help you resist the impulse to snack on unhealthy food.
Talk to your doctor. If you're having problems coping with stress or controlling emotional eating, talk to your primary care physician. He or she may be able to refer you to a health coach, support services, or an obesity specialist. Medications might help some people, but these must be taken long-term or you may regain lost weight.