“When I am stressed I just eat!” I know, I understand. In fact, I may have used that excuse myself. Reality is approaching and has a rude awakening for people using stress as an excuse. Time to remove the excuses and get to the bottom of stress, and weight gain. Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?
The Hormones of Stress
When you are stressed, your body releases three primary hormones. The endocrine system is mean like that. You get stressed emotionally, and your body will react with hormones. Those three primary hormones are cortisol, adrenalin, and CRH (Corticotrophin Releasing Hormone). This combination is quite tricky, and causes us to panic – not eat.
See, the combination makes us trigger our ‘fight or flight response’ we get when we encounter a stressful situation. I call this panic, as most people can understand this feeling. What comes along with this panic? A quick and immediate energy boost. You also ignore your hunger and your appetite is suppressed initially.
If you listen to your body, you will either run from the panic or work through it. Stress is your friend, as if you listen to the response in your body you do something about it. This means the claim that stress is causing you to eat is an excuse.
Eating during periods of stress is a coping mechanism. Rather than listen to the bodies primal response to do something physical, we eat food instead.
Ending this article here would be only half the story, as although the three hormones work like this initially, they do have long term ramifications. Namely, from Cortisol.
Is Cortisol the bad guy?
Yes. I will always firmly state Cortisol is the bad guy. Cortisol serves some great roles in your body, especially for muscle growth. Cortisol is one of your greatest allies. At the same time, when it comes to high stress life styles and weight loss, it is the bane of the dieter’s existence.
Cortisol lasts longer than the other two hormones. Why? After CRH and Adrenalin crush your hunger and drive you to exercise and not eat, your body then has a need to refill the calories burned from this spike in energy and activity we are biologically triggered to have. This is why stress causes weight gain.
This results in an increase in appetite. Not hunger, appetite. You want to eat more, but you are not actually hungry for nutrition. Cortisol then takes the process a step further and tend to concentrate in the ‘trouble spots’ we have for fat loss. Mid-section, love handles, etc.
If you listen to your body, Cortisol is a perfectly fine biological safe guard. If you tell your body no, and do not respond to the ‘fight or flight’ response, you also must fight the increased appetite which comes along with it. Or else you get weight gain.
Does everyone gain weight from Stress?
Not even close. Although stress can make people gain weight, it is mostly a behavioral trait. As in, we learn that coping mechanism. Food, namely trans-fat and carbohydrates, release dopamine in the brain. It is a literal drug. This includes sugar (A carbohydrate).
When we get stressed, our bodies tell us to move, or work through the problem. Some people ignore the problem. Other people run from the problem. Some people freak out. But we most often do not go run for a few miles.
Think about it, when we were evolving, our stress was from being chased by a large animal. We were not stressed from our boss yelling at us. Or our kids screaming. We were stressed from a real threat. When we had this threat, we would run, or fight back.
I am not saying to start running away, but for people in high stress situations, they need to learn to cope with the stress differently. Eating is easy, but our body prefers to use the adrenalin to do something physical.
Some people turn to exercise. Although you do not need to run the moment you are stressed, exercise also releases dopamine. You can handle the negative feelings and appetite with exercise just as easily as eating a doughnut.
For people who are consistently stressed, a different coping mechanism is needed. Just recognize that your stress is not making you gain weight, it is you ignoring your bodies reaction to stress and then caving to the increased appetite from cortisol.
For some people, Can Stress Cause Weight Loss?
Those special people who are always stressed can lose weight while stressed. How so? When you are consistently stressed (Which I call in a state of panic all the time) you become anxious.
After you are stressed to the point of panic, you will often forget to eat. Does stress cause weight gain? In some small doses, yes. Prolonged stress most often will cause weight loss.
You are anxious, constantly stressed, and get to the point you are too stressed to eat. At this point, you start to drop the pounds quickly.
How do I manage my weight while Stressed?
If you have occasional stress, you need to learn to listen to your body. I get stressed at work every day. I take a couple ‘walking breaks’ to help unwind every day. While my coworkers hit the vending machine or smoke a cigarette I do a couple laps in the parking lot.
For those constantly stressed, you need to learn to cope with your stress differently. The easy dietary answer is to remove junk food from your area, desk, or office. Replace it with very low-calorie snacks like pickles.
The best option is to find a new way to cope. I suggest mild exercise, distractions from stress which would include a break from work when overwhelmed and prioritizing. The biggest issue I see people with who eat from stress is that they are not only stressed, they compound this by taking on too much.
Simply saying no and working on one project at a time can make the difference. No matter if your stress makes you binge eat, or causes you to not eat, fighting stress is a good thing. Eating to relieve stress will cause you to pack on the pounds. Not eating will burn valuable muscle and make you look worse. Neither is healthy.
Find all the resources used in this article and the scientific basis of all our article at The Science Behind Fitness.