Stress: it’s the looming work deadline, the overdue bill, juggling friends, family and you-time – the list seems endless. So, it may not shock you to learn that stress can have a dramatic impact on your weight. What may come as a surprise though is the fascinating science behind stress-induced weight gain.
We’re exploring what’s really going on inside your brain and body when you’re experiencing stress, along with a few helpful tips to get both your mind and eating habits back on track.
The stress hormone: cortisol
In order to understand the mechanisms of stress-induced weight gain, one only has to follow the so-called chemical trail — and it all leads back to cortisol. This essential hormone is produced by the adrenal glands and released into the bloodstream at the first sign of perceived danger. As our “fight or flight” hormone, cortisol helps to suppress inflammation, regulate blood pressure, maintain glucose levels and provide your body with the instant energy boost it needs to navigate sudden emergencies.1
This mechanism was incredibly useful for our cave-dwelling ancestors, whose emergencies tended to be life-threatening events like fending off wolves; it continues to aid today’s society in situations of extreme physical duress — like escaping a house fire.
Unfortunately, the complexity of modern life can be a little confusing for our ancient body chemistry. Though today’s stressors are often emotional, they still trigger the same physiological response—one that is now believed to cause weight gain. A British study published in the American journal Obesity found that high cortisol levels associated with chronic stress are also linked to high BMI and obesity.2
Determine whether your BMI falls within a healthy range with our free BMI weight loss calculator.
How cortisol works
If cortisol is basically a “punch” in the adrenals, why isn’t it supercharging your metabolism? (Wouldn’t that be nice!) What actually happens when cortisol enters the bloodstream is the opposite: it’s telling your body that resources are scarce, which automatically slows your metabolic rate to survive the period of perceived famine. Cortisol also has the ability to convert itself to glucose, triggering a spike in blood sugar that’s likely to go unused and be stored as fat.3
A complex mixture
The stress response is a complex mixture of chemical reactions, physiological triggers and emotional responses — and like you, your individual response is 100% unique. For some of us, stress causes mindless eating — which is why reaching for a bag of chips or sugary snack might seem more tempting when you’re frazzled. By contrast, stress might make others accidentally skip a meal; however, this can set you up for eating more later in the day when you realize you’re famished and can result in overeating or late-night snacking.
What’s worse, the stress cycle can also be a frustrating, vicious circle. Worrying about a stressful event or situation can cause you to lose sleep, which is an essential part of maintaining a healthy weight. When you’re tired, you may be more likely to skip your workout or make emotional food choices at a restaurant or grocery store. And when you’re overtired and overworked, both of which can lead to additional stress, you may be more likely to rely on caffeine to get you through the day which may make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.
Breaking the cycle
So how can you break the stress cycle? As it turns out, there are lots of simple habits that are scientifically proven to help us deactivate stress before it wreaks havoc on our sensitive systems. Here are our top five:
1. Walk it off.
Walking, especially in nature, can put your body in a peaceful, meditative state. Studies have shown aerobic exercise can reduce levels of cortisol and adrenaline.5
2. Take a breath.
Deep breathing exercises may help lower blood pressure and provide a sense of calm.6
3. Turn it up.
Playing music may reduce levels of cortisol in the body7 – so find something relaxing to listen to and enjoy!
4. Tell a friend.
The Mayo Clinic suggests that spending time with close friends may reduce your stress levels and may even help you to avoid making unhealthy lifestyle choices.8
5. Have a laugh.
One study found that individuals who anticipated a good laugh prior to watching a funny video spiked their endorphins by nearly 30%9...so giggle it up!
For more information on how Jenny Craig can help you with your weight loss journey and stress coping skills, contact your local Jenny Craig center.
Edited by Elisa - Jenny Craig