Why Stress Can Make You Fat

We all get stressed from time to time and although it is a normal human reaction to difficult situations, too much stress can play havoc with our health and weight. Although the general belief is that stress makes you thin, most people find the opposite is true. Stress can make you fat. We find out why.

Stressed woman

What is Stress?

Stress is your reaction to emotional or mental pressure and can be caused by a range of situations. Anxiety about work, too much to do, money problems, relationship difficulties , balancing the demands of a busy family with full time work, bereavement , moving house, the list is endless.

Whether we are feeling the stress because of long hours at a busy job or whether we are actually in danger, our body’s reaction is the same. It is as if we are about to be harmed so need to stand and fight or run away as fast as possible. Our body’s reaction is to give us the energy burst we need, change the metabolism and make other important physical changes so we can get out of danger.

Although these day we’re mostly not running around the forest being chased by wild animals, our reaction to stress is the same. You may physically react to a pile of unpaid bills in the same way as your long lost ancestor did when hiding away from a sabre-toothed tiger!

Some people can cope with the pressure of their lives only becoming stressed when things all pile up. For example, a busy demanding job may be something that you enjoy and feel perfectly able to deal with but add any extra worries and demands on your time and this can quickly turn to stress and get on top of you. When this happens, even the smallest niggle such as catching every red light on the way to work will further add to your stress levels if you are already feeling the pressure.

Stress affects how you behave, your thought patterns and your physical well-being. Although some stress and pressure is good for us on occasions, living with stress is unhealthy and will affect your health and weight. With modern life becoming increasingly stressful, this is causing a wide range of stress related conditions including depression and obesity.

What Happens to Your Body When You Are Stressed?

Fight or Flight ResponseStress causes a surge of hormones to your body, fuelling the flight or fight response – these stress hormones are designed to help you react to threats and cause the clammy hands, racing heart beat and shaking that can fire you up before you fight or run away!

Your stress hormone cortisol raises the body’s levels of glucose for energy and acts to suppress your immune system. Your body is focused on instant action at the expense of long-term health. Later you want to eat to replace lost sugars.

Norepinephrine – the brains transmitter signals the flight or fight response. Controlled by the adrenal glands, norepinephrine is responsible for the keyed up feeling you get when nervous. When norepinephrine is stimulated, it actually decreases your appetite by making you feel too nervous and jittery to eat. There are over the counter and prescription diet pills that stimulate this stress hormone norepinephrine in order to maintain the flight or fight response for longer periods of time than is safe.

Serotonin – the brains feel good chemical is decreased by stress and anxiety. When serotonin levels are low, we tend to crave carbohydrates and sweet things in order to feel better.

Neuropeptide Y (NPY) – a natural substance in the brain that stimulates eating and releases endorphins helping you to feel instantly better. Repeated exposure to stress stimulates the release of NPY and causes fat to build up in the abdomen in case of future food shortages.

So if some stress hormones make you lose weight, how does stress make you fat?

Our stress hormones give us instant energy and although they decrease the appetite at first, these effects do not last very long. Cortisol has a slow effect and its job is to help you replenish the body after the stress has passed. It remains elevated in your body, which increases your appetite as a result.

Woman with unhealthy lifestyleSerotonin levels are diminished by stress and lead us to comfort eat as a reaction. Carbohydrates that replace low blood sugar levels are the first things we tend to reach for. NPY also creates the desire to eat and as a result of stress will store fat around the midriff which is dangerous for health.

Naturally, we are not designed to live under stress and although feeling keyed up and on edge prevents you from eating, it is not a normal reaction to remain at this peak for too long. Feeling stressed takes up a lot of the body’s glucose and the usual reaction to stress is to eat or drink something with high sugar content. We all know that the classic answer to shock is a sweet cup of tea and after a stressful situation; this is something that the body craves.

Functioning under stress for too long will cause these hormones to remain in your body and manifest as a range of symptoms. When you under severe psychological stress you can suffer from feelings of anxiety, irritability, insecurity and a range of problems including lack of sexual desire, headaches, gastric problems and similar.

You may experience some or all of these at any given time;

Common Symptoms of Stress

  • Irritability and loss of temper
  • Inability to switch off and relax
  • Drinking too much alcohol, coffee, smoking more than usual
  • Over eating or loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Self-doubt
  • Muscular pains
  • Mind racing
  • Sleep disturbances – typically awake in the early hours worrying.
  • Low immune system – you catch every bug that does the rounds.

Stress is part of life and most of us are so used to functioning under stress that we do not even realise it until we are stretched to breaking point. Not all stress is bad because it gives us the resources to deal with difficult and potentially dangerous situations. It helps give us our fast reactions to keep out of danger.

Where it becomes dangerous and leads to weight gain is when we are constantly living under stress. Everyone is different. What causes stress in one person may not have the same impact in another so you need to recognise your triggers and find coping strategies that keep you healthy and does not pile on the pounds.

Being Under Pressure Makes you Put on Weight

Eating food high in carbohydrates or comfort eating is a normal reaction to stress. This can be driven by hormonal surges but can also be simply a habit we fall into because it makes us feel better. Added to this there are the simple practical reasons why stress adds to weight gain.

  • Too busy to eat regular meals and being rushed for time leads to eating more takeaways and fattening junk food.
  • Alcohol – a few too many glasses to unwind at night adds calories to your daily intake. One glass of wine contains around 300 calories.
  • Lack of time to exercise.
  • Depression – feeling depressed makes you unlikely to consider or care what you are eating.
  • Missing meals leads to snacking on high calorie foods with poor nutritional content such as crisps, candy and chocolate bars.

So What Can you do About Stress to Minimise Weight Gain?

Stress will not go away but there are plenty of things you can do to lessen its physical impact and make it less of a problem.

  • Eat regular meals including breakfast. Keeping your blood sugar levels stable will help you feel better and will prevent you from snacking. Planning your menus in advance will help you keep to a healthy diet and less likely to pick up a takeaway.
  • Switch to healthy alternatives. Fruit, wholegrain bread and complex carbs are more satisfying than refined sugar products and will not make you fat if you snack. We have looked into the dangers of comfort eating here.
  • Exercise. Burning off some calories and enjoying some physical activity makes you feel less stressed. Exercise promotes bio chemicals that reduce the negative effects of stress hormones as well as reducing insulin and cortisol levels. Find an activity you enjoy and set some time aside to do it! Even a small walk every day will help you physically and mentally recharge your batteries.
  • Relax! All work and no play does not help your stress levels. You cannot do everything and you’re not superman or superwoman so take a break and chill out with your friends, a book, a DVD, or however you like to relax. It will all be there tomorrow.
  • Vitamin supplements and health supplements that contain vitamin B, antioxidants and minerals can have a positive effect on mood and reduce stress.
  • Sleep. Burning the candle at both ends does not help your stress levels. A good night’s sleep of around 8 hours each night is a powerful stress buster.
  • Try not to worry about your weight. Sounds easy but if you are worried about your weight, an extreme diet will not help you and will probably lead to yo yo weight gain. Instead try to change your lifestyle and diet and you will probably lose weight naturally and feel less stressed into the bargain.

Relaxing with yogaIf your life is stressing you out too much, you may need to seek medical advice. Stress is not an illness but it can lead to medical conditions if it is left unchecked. You may find that a stress support group will help you identify your triggers and give you coping strategies, or you may just need to talk through your problems to get some perspective so ask your doctor if there is a group in your area. Sometimes your doctor will recommend you keep a stress diary and note down the situations that cause the most problems.

It is important to remember that it is not your particular problem or situation that is causing your stress weight gain. In most cases, it is the way that you deal with the stress rather than the problem that makes the difference!

Therefore making changes to your diet and lifestyle will help improve your life all round without adding the extra burden of being overweight as well.

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