The Stress-Weight Gain Connection: How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain in 5 Steps

Health and Wellness | Health Tips | Weight Loss and Management

Woman leans against a wall and with her head in her hands, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

Have you ever stopped to consider why you might be craving a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips? Do you find the need to eat comfort food at the end of a long and exhausting day? Well, there are good reasons for this and stress might be at the top of the list. Stress can derail your ability to lose or maintain a healthy weight. It might be the result of high levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, stress-induced eating behaviors, or both, that might be driving unwanted weight gain. The good news is there are ways to help reduce stress and unwanted weight gain. In this article, we will address how stress affects our weight and how to stop cortisol weight gain in 5 steps.

What Stress and Cortisol Does To The Body

From headaches and tight muscles to feeling irritated and overwhelmed, stress can take a toll on your physical, mental and emotional health. In some instances, you feel the stress right away, but there may be other ways your body responds to stress that might take more time to notice. Your body typically responds to acute stress, by increasing a stress hormone called cortisol, which gets the body into “fight or flight “ mode.

Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands that increases in response to a threat and decreases when that threat is gone. But, if someone is experiencing constant or chronic stress, they are more likely to be overexposed to this hormone, which is a significant appetite stimulant. This hormone raises your blood pressure and increases insulin, while suppressing the immune system. As insulin levels go up, blood sugar drops, making you crave fatty, sugary foods.

Woman eats french fries, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

This is why so many people respond by eating comfort foods and food when stressed. To make matters worse, when excess calories are consumed, they tend to land somewhere around people’s midsection or abdominal area which can lead to the development of disease states like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Cortisol and Metabolism

Another negative side effect of cortisol is that it can slow down your metabolism, encouraging cravings for sugar and fat thus making it difficult to lose weight. This common problem leads to the question: How do we stop cortisol weight gain? In 2015, researchers from Ohio State University interviewed women about their stress levels the previous day before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. After finishing the meal, scientists measured the women’s metabolic rates (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and looked at their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels.

What the researchers discovered is that women who reported one or more stressors in the past 24 hours, burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This could potentially lead to an 11-pound weight gain in one year. Stressed women also had higher insulin levels, a hormone that contributes to fat storage. It’s therefore no surprise that long-term psychological stress can not only negatively impact your weight, but your overall health as well.

Woman working on a laptop holds onto her shoulders in a stressful pose, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

What Are the Risks of Stress Cortisol and Weight Gain?

When stress becomes unmanageable, more serious, long-term health-related consequences can occur.

Chronic stress can lead to depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, and obesity. Prolonged stress can also lead to low energy, which can negatively affect one’s desire to exercise and sustain healthy habits.

Woman gets her blood pressure taken by a doctor

The health risks often associated with weight gain include:

  • Higher blood pressure and cholesterol leading to heart disease and stroke
  • Metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Fertility problems
  • Reduced lung function leading to exacerbated breathing disorders like obstructive sleep apnea
  • Increase in joint pain

Additionally, there’s good evidence connecting obesity to certain cancers such as pancreatic, esophageal, colon, breast, and kidney cancer.

Finally, your mental health can be seriously affected. An increase in anxiety or depression can also happen with excessive weight gain because you don’t feel or look the way you did before the gain.

Unhealthy Habits Caused by Stress

In addition to the hormonal changes related to chronic stress, stress can cause you to engage in other unhealthy behaviors and eating habits, and behaviors that can lead to weight gain:

Emotional Eating:

When sad, anxious, or depressed, we tend to grab food for comfort or to self-soothe rather than eating to satisfy hunger. This can become an unhealthy way to cope with our problems that can lead to weight gain and make it difficult to manage our weight.

Eating “Accessible” or “Fast Food”:

When we are stressed we are typically not thinking of meal planning, so we tend to grab what is quick and easy, versus taking the time to prepare a healthy meal. This type of situation puts us at more risk of going to a fast food drive-through or raiding the cupboard for quick pre-packaged snacks like cookies, crackers, or chips.

Less Physical Activity:

With multiple demands on our schedules, in addition to long commutes and sitting long hours behind a desk, we are less prone to want to get up and move. Stress can also lead to exhaustion, low energy, and little desire to get up and exercise.

Woman lays in bed and looks at her phone, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

Skipping Meals:

When juggling many things at once, eating a healthy meal can drop down the list of priorities. You might find yourself skipping meals because you have too much on your plate or because you have lost touch with your body’s natural hunger cues due to stress. Skipped meals can lead to overeating later when you are too hungry to even register what you are eating.

Less or Poor Sleep:

Many people report sleep issues when stressed. Research has linked poor sleep to spikes in cortisol, a decrease in metabolism, and weight gain. Poor sleep also leads to low energy and the inability to focus on healthy habits that reduce stress, like meal prepping and physical activity.

5 Key Steps on How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

In order to stay focused on healthy lifestyle patterns, it’s important to manage stress levels which can ultimately lead to weight gain if left unchecked. Being consistent with these 5 simple steps will not only allow you to take charge of your diet, but also your whole self.

Woman takes a bite of oatmeal, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

1. Practice mindful eating.

Recognize if you are eating for reasons other than physical hunger. If you are not hungry, food will not address the stress or the trigger to eat. Also, focusing on what you’re eating without any distractions may help lower stress, promote weight loss, and prevent weight gain. Next time you are eating make sure you enjoy your food without the distraction of a phone or television.

Woman throws a basketball at the hoop

2. Make exercise a priority.

Physical activity is key to stress reduction and weight management. Whether it’s taking a walk with the dogs, a long hike in the woods, or pick-up basketball, try incorporating regular exercise into your routine. Set reminders to do so by setting your sneakers and work out clothes by the foot of the bed so that they are handy when you wake up.

Woman leans against a wall and with her head in her hands, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

3. Incorporate stress-relieving strategies.

Try incorporating practices in your daily life that will help relieve stress and promote peace as well as sleep. Consider doing yoga, listening to music, incorporating deep breathing in your morning or afternoon routine. All of these things can help calm and center you and allow you to reduce cortisol levels, and better manage your weight.

Woman reads a book in a foamy bath, How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

4. Set priorities for self-care.

Decide which activities and tasks are important to you and prioritize them. Don’t forget to include adequate time for sleep and movement in your schedule.

Remember to love your body. Poor body image and body shaming are major sources of stress. Improve your body image by focusing on staying healthy. Nourish your body with a variety of delicious and sustaining foods like lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

You can try using mindfulness meditation which can help with low mood, decrease stress and improve your capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion. Mindfulness meditation is the act of being fully aware and present at the moment, with a sense of non judgemental awareness and acceptance. You can develop this type of mindfulness by using meditative apps like “Simple Habit” or “Headspace”.

Two women hug in a sunlit room

5. Be grateful and express gratitude.

Recognize what you are most grateful for or appreciate in your life. Look at the glass as “half full” versus “half empty”. When something is stressing you out, recognize what you appreciate in life. As simple as it sounds, looking at what might be improving in a given situation can help psychologically buffer the stress you are experiencing in other areas of your life. Consider writing in a gratitude journal daily in order to remind yourself of what is going well and what you are most proud of. This will help boost “feel good “ hormones called endorphins and help relieve stress.

Final Thoughts on How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain

While chronic stress can negatively impact your health and your weight by releasing stress hormones like cortisol, the good news is there are  simple yet highly effective ways to decrease daily stressors and subsequently your weight.

By employing stress-relieving strategies, and focusing on mindful eating and good nutrition, you can set the wheels in motion towards better health. Good sleep hygiene and regular movement can also help you feel energized, positive, and present daily. Reminding yourself of what is going well and being grateful, can also help decrease stress.

Weight gain doesn’t have to be inevitable in this changing and stressful world. Taking the right steps today to relieve stress-related weight gain can boost motivation, confidence, as well as physical and mental health, which can ultimately lead to a path of happiness and well-being.

Voula Manousos’ writing is featured in the “Winchester Living Magazine” and “The Winchester Star” of Wicked Local.

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