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Could Your Stress Level be the Cause of Your Weight Gain?

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

With everything going on in the world around us, it seems like stress levels are at an all time high. I know I feel it! If you are anything like me, in these past 12 months you have experienced major changes in your children’s school schedule, your job responsibilities and/or job schedule, the way you are able to interact with family and friends, and what is available to you for fun/recreation/stress relief. It is a lot! And, to top it all off, the added stress may be impacting your waistline… like, come on now! Can’t we catch a little break!? If you have been noticing your jeans (okay… let’s be real, your leggings) have been fitting more snugly than usual lately it is likely due to one of two causes.

#1: Your Body’s Reaction to Stress:

When we talk about the biological basis for weight gain in relation to stress, we are often talking about a hormone called cortisol. Oftentimes, cortisol is referred to as “the stress hormone” because we see a rise in this hormone in tension-filled times. Cortisol in and of itself is not bad. In fact, we need cortisol to survive. It plays an important role in controlling blood pressure, increasing the body’s metabolism of glucose, and reducing inflammation. It is when we have too much cortisol or disrupted cortisol patterns that we begin to see a problem.

In a normal 24-hour period of cortisol secretion, you see the highest level of secretion in the morning hours and a tapering off at night. During times of high stress, this pattern can be disrupted. It is in this disruption that weight gain occurs. The reason for this is because cortisol has a very close relationship with the hormone insulin, which controls our blood sugar. When cortisol levels increase, our body becomes resistant to insulin. The result of this insulin resistance is increased blood sugar and oftentimes weight gain.

#2: Stress Eating:

Plain and simple, stress affects eating behaviors. In times of high tension (stress), individuals tend to exercise less and consume a higher number of daily calories. We use food as a way of regulating our mood. However, as we know, when we move less and consume more, our body fat increases and we experience weight gain.

Incidents of stress eating typically follow this pattern: First, we experience a negative emotion such as depression, anger, anxiety, stress, boredom, or loneliness. This emotion makes us feel physically or mentally uncomfortable and we want relief from the unpleasant feeling. Next, a thought about food occurs. This thought quickly turns into a craving or urge to consume that particular food. The foods that tend to be craved most often are those that are high in sugar or high in fat. Interestingly, women tend to experience a higher degree of food cravings than men. Finally, because giving in to these cravings results in the temporary reduction of tension or increase in energy (and therefore a better mood), the pattern of using food to regulate moods repeats itself over and over again, each time becoming further reinforced as your “go-to” method of stress relief.

The Good News:

The good news is that there are steps that each of us can start taking TODAY to reduce our overall stress level and reduce our incidence of stress eating. To learn more, take a peek at 6 Strategies to Overcome Stress Eating. As well, if you think that you would benefit from one-on-one coaching to reduce your stress or stress eating behaviors, don’t hesitate to reach out. I am happy to help! -Amy

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