Everyone experiences the occasional sleepless night, tossing and turning over a problem at work or conflict in a personal relationship. But when stress becomes chronic, it can lead to serious health issues, including hormonal changes that contribute to weight gain. Continue reading this article to learn why stress leads to weight gain.
Fight, Flight, Fat?
Why does stress lead to weight gain? There are several reasons why stress causes people to overeat. The so-called fight-or-flight response has much to do with it. “Fight or flight” is a physical reaction to a perceived threat: when we are under stress, the body releases adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol (also known as the “stress hormone”). Adrenaline has the short-term effect of getting more energy to your large muscles and more oxygen to your lungs, to help with the fight or the flight. Adrenaline also temporarily reduces appetite.
Cortisol signals the body to release energy into the bloodstream. Adrenaline wears off, but cortisol tends to hang around longer, still encouraging your body to release the energy you may not use right away. But your body assumes you did use that adrenaline-supported burst of energy and thinks you need to replace it. Cortisol sends signals to the body to replenish supplies, stimulating appetite. So, even if you’re just sitting on the couch stewing about something that is causing you anxiety, your body thinks you fought the fight or fled the scene. It wants you to rebuild energy supplies, even if you didn’t use them. As a result of stress eating, you may experience cravings for fatty or sugary foods, and end up gaining weight, often stored as harmful belly fat.
Stress Can Cause New Fat Cells to Form
A recent study from Stanford University found that stress can affect mice at the microscopic level of cell formation. Chronic stress can disrupt the natural ebb and flow of another kind of hormone, glucocorticoid, causing the formation of new fat cells and the growth of existing ones. Ordinarily, glucocorticoid levels rise and fall with “circadian rhythms” throughout the day. But when chronic stress disrupts this “pulsing” of the hormone and keeps it at a constantly high level, more fat cells form. When the Stanford scientists exposed mice to a consistently high level of glucocorticoids, the rodents experienced significant weight gain. Interestingly, the mice didn’t gain weight if the level of the hormone rose and fell, even if it was excessively high at the top of the rise-and-fall cycle. This finding may have implications for how human beings respond to chronic stress at the molecular level.
Stress Can Disrupt Insulin Levels
As cortisol stimulates your appetite and leads you to crave high-calorie, fatty, and sugary foods, your body responds by sending out more insulin. This is the body’s way of dealing with the increase in your blood sugar level. This can cause a drop in blood sugar, which in turn causes more cravings. It’s a vicious cycle—more comfort food leads to more weight gain. Increased insulin over time can also cause you to develop insulin resistance, where cells stop responding appropriately, which is a symptom of type 2 diabetes.
When To See Your Doctor & How To Overcome Stress Eating
There are many reasons why stress may lead to weight gain. If you’re feeling chronically stressed out, and you notice that weight is starting to creep on and stay, consult an endocrinologist. You may discover that stress has contributed to hormonal changes which, in turn, promote weight gain. Dr. Philip Rabito is a top endocrinologist in NYC who can create a personalized plan for you to help manage weight and get your body back in balance.