How Stress Can Cause Extra Weight

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on January 1, 2020
Last updated on May 23, 2021

Deadlines are coming at you from left and right. A conflict with your partner has ensued. Your new business venture is not doing too well. Too many things to worry about and deal with, right? So here you are sitting at home, feeling overwhelmed. Then you look down and notice a bulge in your midsection that was not there before. What happened?

The tension you are feeling is called stress and the bulge in your tummy is a sign that you are gaining weight. In this article, we will discuss the relationship between stress and weight gain. Two of the most common problems of people in this day and age.

What is Stress?

We hear it all the time. “I am so stressed out this week because of these revisions I have to do.” “My mom finds her situation with her new neighbor very stressful.” “She just started law school. She looks stressed whenever I see her.” Just about anything difficult and challenging is linked to stress. But, what is stress, really?

Stress is defined as the body’s reaction to changes. It can be manifested through mental, emotional, and physical responses. When you need to adjust or respond to new situations or things, stress is normally experienced. The situations that trigger stress are not always problematic, even joyous occasions like a promotion or having a new kid can cause a person to feel a sense of distress.

What Are the Causes of Stress?

Stress comes from a complex background. What is stressful for you may be something your best friend just deals with smoothly. It is multifactorial. The stressors can vary from person to person.

For example, one study conducted on students studying at professional colleges in the city proved that academic factors can cause stress for some. The study was conducted on medical, engineering, and dental students. From the 1,224 participants, 299 of them reported experiencing stress with women having a slightly larger percentage than men (1).

For some students, a school is a place where they have to showcase their abilities. While this comes easy for others, the pressure of fulfilling responsibilities at an early age can take a toll on some. One study conducted on high school students showed that their stressors include taking examinations, determining which career path to take, and family issues (2).

At work, employees report working conditions and certain management practices can elevate their stress levels. Unrealistic demands, unfair treatment between employees, an imbalance between effort and reward, poor communication and transparency, and lack of appreciation and support are some of the common management issues that put a strain on employees (3).

Stress severity is based on these two protective mechanisms that our body utilizes to cope (4):

Alarm Reaction

Our body’s first response to threats is manifested through physiological arousal. Tensed muscles, fast heart rate, and getting out of breath are some of the physical changes our body experiences in response to the stimuli. This is extremely helpful in cases like getting rob at gunpoint. However, nowadays, one of the most typical examples of stress stimuli is getting reprimanded at work. Of course, the usual fight or flee response should be adapted to this specific social setting.


This is when you ease up after learning that the trigger is no longer threatening. If this does not come into play, you will be constantly exhausted physically and emotionally.

If one of these mechanisms is not fulfilling their tasks or there is a difficulty to switch accordingly from one mechanism to another, stress is experienced.

The Symptoms of Stress

Stress is considered as a mental pressure experienced by a person encountering challenging situations. It can lead to different health problems. Some of the symptoms that you are under stressed are:

1. Dizziness

The vestibular system manages the body position and senses movements in our surroundings. It is made of the inner ear, nerves, and some parts of the brain connected to that. Scientists believe that the areas of the brain responsible for anxiety and stress are linked to the areas of the brain that cause dizziness (5).

2. Aches and Pains

Stress regulates pain perception. It can either cause an absence of pain or increased sensitivity to pain (6). Stress can also worsen existing pain.

3. Jaw Problems

Stress can increase the odds of developing TMJ disorders. In one study, anxiety and TMJ disorder occurrence showed a parallel increase, suggesting a strong correlation between the two (7).

4. Sleep Disorders

Excessive stress activates the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system and causes psychological and physiological responses that are incompatible with sleep (8).

5. Skin Conditions

Stress stimulates a chemical reaction in the body that renders the skin more reactive and sensitive to external stimuli. It also slows down the healing of damaged skin.

6. Digestive Problems

The connection between the gut and the brain is real. For people suffering from functional GI disorders with no obvious physical explanation, recovering from a problematic digestive tract will be challenging without factoring in emotions and stress as possible causes (9).

7. Cognitive Symptoms

Research suggests that chronic stress can be linked to accelerated aging. This can be experienced by increased odds of having brain infarcts, higher risk of stroke, and reduced brain volume. Higher levels of stress showed a decline in cognition and even more rapid decrease in episodic memory in participants of a particular study, separating depressive symptoms and vascular factors (10).

8. Weight Gain

With all the negative impacts of stress in the body, it is easy to understand why weight gain is inevitable.

When you experience stress in your life, you can observe a change in your habits as well as a response to these life changes and a way to adapt to various difficult situations.

Stress and Lack of Appetite

It is not unusual for stressed-out people to lose their appetite and neglect their need to nourish their bodies with food. A study showed that skipping meals can lead to weight gain (11). The research used mice as subjects and they were provided with just a single meal per day. These mice developed insulin resistance in the liver, which is evidence of pre-diabetes. Before the single meal experiment, these mice were initially placed on a limited diet intended for weight loss. This is in contrast to the control group that has been given unlimited access to food. Once the restricted group was given more calories, they started gaining weight. At the end of the study, they were almost as heavy as the control group. However, most of their weight is concentrated in their midsections. This excessive fat in the belly seems to be characteristic of insulin resistance. In humans, visceral fat in the abdominal area is a predisposing factor to diabetes and heart disease.

Stress and Appetite Stimulation

Chronic stress can sometimes lead to an increased appetite. More specifically, it can cause unhealthy food cravings. This phenomenon is popularly known as emotional eating. Without self-control, giving in to these cravings will definitely add more pounds to your existing weight. In one study conducted on mice, chronic stress causes hunger hormones known as ghrelin levels to rise. While behaviors linked to anxiety and depression decrease during the upsurge of ghrelin levels, it can lead to unwanted weight gain an unnecessary snacking (12). Instead of reaching for a banana, you might find yourself eating a box of chocolate chip cookies in one sitting.

Stress-Induced Hormonal Changes and Weight Gain

The change in weight can also be a result of hormonal changes. Numerous studies back up the idea that stress can influence metabolism, fat storage, and insulin. Levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone, and norepinephrine rise when there is a sense of increased tension in your life. This is another factor that leads to overeating. When your cortisol levels rise, your insulin levels do the same thing, leaving your blood sugar to drop. When this happens, you will most likely make improper food choices. The term comfort foods, pertaining to all sorts of junk foods, is coined for its ability to lower down your stress level temporarily and satisfy your cravings for fatty and sweet foods. The downside is the weight gain that goes with this type of food. Increased cortisol levels are very much linked to abdominal obesity and mental issues (13).

A lot of people who work out to lose weight will tell you that the fight to ensure that the lost pounds remain off is more challenging than the initial battle of losing them. Norepinephrine (NE) is associated with rebound weight gain. According to a study, those who have high plasma NE level is evident on those who experienced subsequent weight regain (14).

Stress-induced Insomnia and Weight Gain

Experiencing sleepless nights due to stress can also lead to weight gain. Inadequate sleep reduces metabolism and inhibits blood flow that can fight against stress (15). Sleep deprivation can also stimulate ghrelin production while lowering leptin, which is responsible for sending signals to your brain and indicating that you are already full (16).

Stress and the Rate of Metabolism

Stress has been linked to a slower rate of metabolism. Excessive stress can influence where our body deposits fat. The changes in metabolism are caused by a hodge-podge of intrinsic and external factors. For people who are experiencing acute stress, reduced appetite is more commonly experienced. For those who are dealing with chronic stress, weight gain is expected (17).

How Stress Can Influence Your Eating Habits and Lifestyle and Lead to Weight Gain

When your stress levels are off the roof, unexpected behavioral changes can contribute to an increase in weight. Below are some of the changes you might undertake when under a lot of tension:

1. Increased Cravings for High Fat and Sugary Foods

Sweets and processed foods are well-known contributors to weight gain. It is easy to find comfort in foods that are delicious no matter how unhealthy they are. Unfortunately, the repercussions are more long-term. As the saying goes, “A minute on your lips, forever in your hips.”

2. Prefers Fast Foods

When you are feeling under the weather because of stress, preparing your own food can feel like a daunting task. Unfortunately, even healthy restaurants offer foods high in fat and sugar.

3. Decreased Fluid Intake

Dealing with different changes in life can make you neglect mundane things like drinking water. However, thirst sometimes feels like hunger. So, you might end up grabbing and munching food several times a day when you are in fact just thirsty. Water makes up 60% of your body weight (18). Apart from weight gain, not drinking enough can lead to many health issues.

4. Lack of Interest in Exercise

A person has the tendency to just lie down after feeling so worn out with work and the stress that goes with it. Refusing to let it get to you is not easy to accomplish, but exercising can help you keep the weight off.  A long walk, a quick stretch, or a 20-minute jog can help you feel better. The endorphins released during exercise can even lower your stress level.

5. Disturbed Sleeping Pattern

A lot of people have troubled minds that they take with them as they lie down in bed. As mentioned earlier, lack of sleep can affect your stress levels, metabolism, and weight. In fact, it is a vicious cycle. Stress makes you miss out on sleep and lack of sleep makes you too tired and stressed out to take on the following day. Either way, both of these are factors to weight gain. Try unwinding before bedtime. Meditation and journaling have proven beneficial for those who cannot get themselves together at the end of the day. If your case is too severe, a trip to the doctor is in order.

Key Takeaway

Stress can lead to a myriad of health problems, such as weight gain. The body’s reaction to it, like hormonal changes and alteration of metabolism, are the main culprits of increased body weight.

Stress is unavoidable as it is our body’s natural way to respond to changes. And from what you know about the change, it is the only constant thing in the world. Learning how to manage it will be essential for both your peace of mind and health status.


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