Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

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Want to hear about the craziest day ever? Way back when I was an undergrad student, I did some dinky work for a medical records facility. I worked early in the morning so I could attend my afternoon classes. I got done with work by 10 am (I started at 5 am), and then drove the 30 miles from my work to school. By the way, work was 25 miles from my apartment. So anyway, I was in school till around 2 and then squeezed in a quick workout at the rec center. I then had to drive back to work for some stupid meeting that I had to attend. I think my boss made me attend it since he knew I was out the door in couple of months when I graduated and this didn’t sit well with him. Plus he didn’t like me.

So anyway, I drove back from school to work to attend the meeting. Apparently, a company was buying the organization I worked for and I had to fill out a bunch of paperwork right there on the spot. This was a major inconvenience because I had to drive to my Grandma’s apartment and be there by 4:30 to help her with some things. So I called to explain to her that I was going to be late but when I finally got on the freeway to drive to her apartment, I heard a nice pop and realized that I had a flat tire.

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For many, this type of day is an everyday occurrence. Sure, my crazy commute wasn’t worthy of bringing the world to a halt, but many of us live each day like this and it takes its toll. According to the American Psychological Association, 60% of people report work – something we do nearly everyday of the week – as a huge stressor contributing to their life. We’re not talking about good stress either, like working out or watching a scary movie. What we are discussing is the stress from work, deadlines, and all the other fun stuff we have to do in life. Can stress cause weight gain? Let’s take a look.

Think stress doesn’t affect you? Think again. Researchers took subjects through a barrage of stressors to see how their body would respond. When given the task of public speaking, researchers found that subjects had an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (1). You may not be hosting seminars everyday, but long commutes, arguments, and constant deadlines may be taking their toll on your health. It may also explain why you’re gaining weight.

The body doesn’t understand the type of stress you’re under. So if you’re doing a set of squat cleans, running away from a giant dinosaur, or arguing with your neighbor, the stress response is the same. When this stress is brought upon the body, the body goes into survival mode, thereby affecting your blood sugar levels and slowing down digestion. You’ll also have an increase in the amount of adrenaline your body releases, and when adrenaline is released, cortisol is soon to follow (2). Cortisol is a hormone that likes to make the body store fat; a little bit of it is needed but overdosing on it in the form of stress is no good.

How does cortisol cause you to gain weight? Well, it breaks down muscle mass to convert proteins into amino acids. If you know anything about the body, then you know this is not good – breaking down your own muscle is like tearing the dry wall down in your house to try and keep a fire going. Cortisol also blocks blood sugar from getting into tissues, which is a big problem for those with blood sugar issues (3). Even if your blood sugar levels are normal as of reading this, chronic stress can fix that.

Elevated stress levels also creep their way into the rest of your everyday life, like sleep. It can be difficult to get a good night’s rest when your mind is racing on whatever is stressing you out. The lack of sleep affects your body’s ability to repair itself as well as affecting hormonal function. Your behaviors can also suffer. Researchers performed a study on nighttime eating; they found that those subjects who had abnormal sleep patterns also got up during the night and raided the fridge. As a result, they ate more food than those who slept through the night, and gained more weight during the study (4).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. You probably see people like this everyday: grown adults fighting over the coffee pot and that one guy in your office who drinks three energy drinks a day. High stress levels throw off your sleep, which affects your eating patterns and forces you to rely on stimulants for your energy. After all, how many of us know that person who isn’t the same person until they get that first cup of coffee in the morning?

Stress sucks, but it isn’t going anywhere. Everyone has stress – the issue is managing it before it destroys you. The first step is getting over denial. If you refute the fact that you’re under stress, then you’re not likely to take up a yoga class to de-stress. Like they say, denial ain’t a river in Egypt.

Your best bet is to simply figure out what works for you. For some, reading a good book or taking the dog for a walk is enough to unwind at the end of the day. Some need interventions of a higher degree, such as private yoga lessons, journaling, or meditation. Prior to being a sports medicine major, I was a psychology major. I had a professor who explained to me this process that he had his patients do: an angered and frustrated patient could write a letter to whomever they chose and say whatever they wanted. However, when the letter was completed, they had to tear it up and burn it. The method allowed subjects to get what they needed off their chest and move on with their lives.

Can stress cause weight gain? Probably – but like anything else, managing stress is completely in your hands. The choice is yours.


[toggle title=”References”]

1. Deley, G. Lipman, R.D., et al. “Stress Response and Baroreflex Function in Coronary Disease.” (2009) Journal of Applied Physiology 106;2, 576-581

2. Chek, Paul. How to Eat, Move, and Be Healthy. San Diego; Chek Institute Publishing. 2004; pp 193-195

3.Powers, S.K., Howley, E.T. Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance 6th ed. Boston; McGraw Hill. 2007, pp 83-84

4. Gluck, M.E., Venti, C.A., et al. “Nighttime Eating: Commonly Observed and Related to Weight Gain in an Inpatient Food Intake Study.” (2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 88;4, 900-905 [/toggle]


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