How Chronic Stress Usually Leads to Weight Gain

Lady on bed wearing white with her hands covering her face.

All the negativities everyone has heard and experienced lately may be too much for some and could take a toll on people’s emotional and mental state. (Image: Anthonytran via Unsplash)

Have you ever wondered why some people gain weight during periods of chronic stress, while others may lose it?

You’ve likely heard the saying: “We only know what we know?” Well, that is especially true when it comes to the science of nutrition, which still keeps evolving. It was once believed that weight loss was a simple calories in and calories out formula. However, as technology develops, we have more sophisticated functional medicine testing, which confirms there’s much more to it. Especially relevant are our hormones and the resilience of our gut bacteria.

Chronic stress can lead to weight gain.
Hormones play a big part in the process of weight gain or understanding why attempts to lose weight are not working. (Image: i yunmai via Unsplash)  

The relationship between chronic stress and weight gain

In clinical practice, I see, time and again, people frustrated with their short-term weight loss efforts when they’re hardly eating anything at all. Here, I will focus on the hormones and why some people, during intensely stressful times, can lose weight, but over the long term, will gain weight. 

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Stress initially raises cortisol levels, which stimulates the body to use up glucose in the blood and muscle storage to give you the energy you need to “run” away from the threat in front of you. Perception of real threats has the same response.

In the short term, the body goes into a catabolic state — breaking down muscle and using up insulin, along the way reducing appetite, so some people may lose weight. The stress response — fight or flight — also causes your blood pressure and heart rate to go up and your digestive system shuts down. But if this long-term stress — either mental, emotional or physical  — doesn’t settle down or lower this hormone rush, then insulin stays high, creating weight gain.

women with hand on head and cup of tea on bench looking tired and stressed
Poor sleep is often one of the side effects of the hormone rush of ‘fight or flight’ from stress. (Image: Anh Nguyen via Unsplash)  

This hormone rush is usually linked to poor sleep, then more carb cravings, along with a weakened immune system and libido. Most of the time when your lifestyle is in balance, your nervous system uses a combination of both glucose and body fat as fuel. When you operate on a high level of stress all the time, the body thinks it is in danger and it raises insulin to get fast-acting glucose as fuel into the cells to make you feel safe again.

Being repeated over time, your body has lost this ability to burn body fat as fuel because your body is under constant stress. This inability to burn body fat results in your fat levels increasing, your clothes getting tighter, your moods fluctuating, and as a result, you often turn to sugar to top up your low energy levels. 

If you are experiencing these symptoms, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you often feeling rushed?
  2. Are you short of breath or sighing a lot?
  3. Is your heart racing (when not deliberately exercising)?

So what can you do about it?

Explore your perception of urgency and pressure — is what you’re experiencing really worth stressing about?

  • Take note of what is stressing you out — is it in relation to what other people are thinking about you? Try to see situations for what they really are, rather than what you perceive to be happening.
  • Cull your “to do” list and circle of influence down to 5-10 people that matter the most to you. Take on their opinions more than those of strangers or those you hardly know.
  • Daily walking for around 30 minutes can be very useful for clearing away that extra insulin, but reduce high-intensity exercise during stressful periods (including life changes like hormonal transitions!!).
  • Avoid long-term restrictive eating, as it can cause muscle breakdown. The body becomes unsure of when it’s getting fed again and thinks it’s in famine. So it can actually cause more hormone imbalances and slow metabolism overall. 

In all cases, your symptoms should be assessed individually by a health professional to rule out other possible causes. Remember too that it takes time for these things to develop, and likewise, it takes time for recovery.

Sheridan Genrich CGP is a naturopath and nutritionist who received her health science degree from Charles Sturt University, and also received the Dean’s Award for academic excellence. Sheridan mainly works with over-stretched professionals, entrepreneurs, and executives who struggle to be in their best health. Find her at Better Brain Health.

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