Is Stress Making you Gain Weight?

Are you wondering whether can stress cause weight gain, or stopping you from losing weight? Let’s find out…

In this Blog post I’m going to look at the relationship between stress and weight gain and hopefully, by the end you’ll have a good understanding of why it’s so important to address stress when you’re trying to lose weight.

I’m pretty sure that stress was a contributing factor to me gaining weight throughout my 20’s and into my 30’s. Certainly, I had my fair share of it at medical school and as a junior doctor.

If you are someone who suffers from stress, make sure to read to the end because I’ve got something special for you.

Table of Contents

What happens to the body during stress?

I want to start by looking at what happens to the body in a time of stress.

The Stressful Event

Let’s just take the classic example of our caveman ancestors being attacked by a sabre tooth tigre.

The Adrenal Gland Secretes Cortisol & Adrenaline

Your brain tells the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys to secrete the stress hormone cortisol along with adrenaline.

Cortisol prepares the body for a fight or flight response by flooding it with glucose

This sudden flood of glucose is going to give those large muscles loads of energy which might be needed for the fight, or the flight.
  1. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored. Insulin is our body’s storage hormone, and we want that glucose to be available rather than to be stored. We want it to be available for immediate use.
  2. Cortisol narrows the arteries while adrenaline increases the heart rate. Our blood pressure goes up, making sure all that extra glucose is being supplied to our muscles nice and quickly.
  3. Then eventually, the stress resolves & everything goes back to normal.

It's all about survival

This stress response has been evolving since the dawn of time. It’s about survival.

In modern times, we experience stress in a very different way – in a non-life threatening way.

Work Stress, Financial Stress, Exam Stress, Negative Online Comments, or my own personal number one stress – Being Stuck in Traffic!

Rather annoyingly, our bodies haven’t evolved to respond differently to non-life-threatening experiences of stress.

Hormonal Responses

As is the case with many of the hormones in the human body, they are meant to surge up, in response to some sort of stimulus, then reset back to normal, background levels.

This is how our stress hormones are supposed to work, but if you’re experiencing stress all the time then you’re going to get persistently raised cortisol levels, which has a different action on the body than the one I described earlier.

Now there is a medical condition which causes persistently raised cortisol levels which is really useful to think about because it kind of gives us an extreme example of what is going on in someone who is experiencing chronic stress.

Cushing’s Disease is caused by a tumour which causes the adrenal glands to produce excessive cortisol.

cushing's disease

Now this graphic shows us the different signs that we see in someone with Cushing’s disease. Now I’m not going to go through all of them, but you will notice that one of them is Abdominal Obesity.

Persistently raised cortisol levels cause fat to be mobilised from being spread all over your body to be redistributed inside the abdomen.

This is what is called Visceral fat… it’s not the fat that is covering your abs and stopping them showing, it’s the fat that is inside the abdomen, pushing your abs out from the inside. It’s this visceral fat that is associated with heart disease and a range of other health problems.

Chronic stress also causes increased hunger and people who are stressed have a tendency to consume ‘comfort food’ – the stuff that has that bad combination of being high in fat, refined carbohydrates and calories.

So yes, stress is an important part of the picture when it comes to why we gain weight, particularly around our abdomens, and it can be a significant block as to why we fail to lose weight.

I’ve seen many people who are doing all the right stuff with their diets, fail to lose weight because of stress, and unless we address this stress, weight loss is slow or non-existent.

Top Tips to help manage your stress

I wanted to give you some actionable tips on how to reduce stress in your life, and I know that a lot of people’s stress comes from the workplace.

So, I called up my friend Dr Anna Pinkerton who is a psychologist who specialises in helping people prevent or recover from burnout.

Now this was just supposed to be a quick chat over skype to get some thoughts about what we could put together to help you with your stress.

Pretty much as soon as asked her the question, she just came out with some absolutely golden advice about how to reduce stress and avoid burnout.

Thankfully I recorded the call.

This isn’t the usual advice about getting massages, going to the gym, doing yoga, eating well and that kind of stuff.

In fact, the simplicity of Anna’s approach will probably surprise you.

I’ve edited the call down for you and I’ll send you the link you when you sign up for my newsletter.

So along with this you’ll get new recipes on a weekly basis, notifications when I release new content and a whole bunch of other stuff. If you don’t like it… you can easily unsubscribe.