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Why stress might be thwarting your weight loss efforts

If you’re looking to lose weight, high stress levels could be getting in your way. From fatigue to increased cravings, here are some ways stress might be thwarting your weight loss efforts.

Frequently feel stressed or anxious? You’re not alone. Over 70% of adults in the United States report feeling this way daily [4]. While occasional stress is normal, chronic stress can significantly affect your health and even impact your weight, both by thwarting weight loss and promoting unwanted weight gain. But how does stress negatively impact your body, and what can you do to break this vicious cycle? Let’s discuss stress and how it affects your hormones, metabolism, and motivation, as well as what you can do to lower stress levels.
person with black shirt and hands over face

What is stress?

Stress is defined as the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with emotional or physical pressure [1]. There are two different types of stress: acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) [2]. Acute stress is temporary and occurs after a stressful event, whereas chronic stress is prolonged, lasting weeks, months, even years [3]. The latter can produce many negative symptoms, such as insomnia or sleep difficulties, lower sex drive, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue, and weight gain [8]. 

How stress affects the body

In high-stress situations, your body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and glucose as part of a “fight-or-flight” response [5]. Cortisol is a hormone that provides your body with the energy needed to deal with any stress you may feel and is used to replenish your energy supply quickly [6]. However, when your body is under chronic stress, cortisol levels stay elevated for an extended period, contributing to numerous health problems, including high blood pressure, sleep issues, brain fog, and a weakened immune system [7]. Elevated cortisol levels can also lead to unwanted weight gain and impede weight loss. Here’s what science has to say about how chronic stress can impact the number on the scale.

Cortisol and weight gain

When it comes to weight loss, stress can throw a wrench in the gears. Increased cortisol enhances sugar cravings and slows your metabolism, which can lead to weight gain [9].
sugar cubes stacked on dark surface
These findings are backed by science, as research shows that women who experienced one or more stressors in an hour burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women, which could result in a significant weight gain of 11 pounds over one year [9]. 
Other evidence shows that stressed women have higher levels of insulin, a hormone that lowers blood sugar and promotes fat storage. In cases of acute stress, elevated cortisol reduces insulin production and sensitivity to allow blood sugar to be used immediately by muscle tissue; however, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, the body remains in an insulin-resistant state and insulin production increases. These hormonal changes can increase cravings for sugary or highly-processed foods like cookies, soda, chips, or crackers, as they quickly offset the effects of raised insulin and cortisol levels. [9],10]. 
In addition to increased cravings, raised cortisol can also contribute to poor sleep and decreased motivation for physical activity, which are associated with weight gain.

Top tips for reducing stress

Though chronic stress can negatively impact your weight loss efforts, there are some things you can do to combat this. Here are some strategies to help you reduce stress and achieve a healthy weight:

Increase physical activity levels.

Exercise is an important part of stress reduction (and therefore weight loss) as it can lower cortisol levels, improve sleep, increase endorphins, and ease anxiety [1]. You can boost your physical activity levels by finding some exercises that you enjoy, like yoga, cycling, or strength training. Aim to get 30 minutes of movement each day.
Three people with black pants hiking through the woods

Improve sleep habits.

Stress can cause you to lose sleep, but a lack of sleep can also cause stress. This vicious cycle can wreak havoc on your sleep hygiene, so it’s important to prioritize at least seven hours of sleep each night, especially if you want to lose weight. Studies have linked better sleep with greater weight loss and fat loss for adults who are overweight or obese and trying to lead healthier lifestyles [11].
Learn more about the correlation between sleep and weight gain here.

Practice mindfulness. 

Studies have found that reducing distractions during mealtime can help lower stress, promote weight loss, avoid emotional eating, and prevent weight gain [9]. Additionally, being mindful of what you’re eating allows you to slow down, savor and appreciate your food. 

Consider supplements.

Even though eating a nutritious diet plays a role in reducing stress and promoting weight loss, certain supplements can also make an impact. For instance, ashwagandha has been shown to reduce stress levels significantly, and L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea extract, can improve relaxation and lower cortisol levels [12,13].

Try meditation.

Meditation calms your parasympathetic nervous system, which allows you to relax and de-stress. You can do this through journaling, deep breathing, or calming exercises. Not only do these outlets help with decreasing stress, but they can also be something you turn to for comfort in place of food.

Talk with someone.

Sometimes the simple act of talking with someone about your stress can be effective in reducing it. While speaking to a friend may be beneficial, a therapist can help you develop strategies to cope and manage your stress regularly. 
three people talking against light background

Summary

Stress is a natural reaction to everyday life, but if you stress too much, it can lead to various health issues such as high blood pressure, sleep issues, brain fog, and a weakened immune system. It can also thwart your weight loss efforts, as increased cortisol can enhance sugar cravings, slow your metabolism, decrease sleep quality, and reduce motivation for physical activity. You can combat stress-related weight gain through positive lifestyle changes, such as mindful eating, meditation, and talking with a therapist.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose, or replace personalized medical care.

Key Takeaways

  • Stress is defined as the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with emotional or physical pressure [1]. 
  • Chronic stress can produce many negative symptoms, such as insomnia or sleep difficulties, lower sex drive, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue, and weight gain [8]. 
  • When your body is under chronic stress, cortisol levels will stay elevated for an extended period, contributing to various health problems, including high blood pressure, sleep issues, brain fog, and a weak immune system [7]. 
  • Studies have found that stressed women have higher insulin levels (a hormone that contributes to fat storage) and tend to crave high sugar foods due to a drop in blood sugar levels [9].
  • In addition to increased cravings, elevated cortisol levels can also contribute to poor sleep and decreased motivation for physical activity, which are associated with weight gain.

References:

  1. Dragoş, D., & Tănăsescu, M. D. (2010). The effect of stress on the defense systems. Journal of medicine and life, 3(1), 10–18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20302192/ 
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Stress and your health. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm.  
  3. C. Raio, T. Orederu, L. Palazzolo, A. Shurick, E. Phelps (2013). Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110 (37) 15139-15144; doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1305706110    
  4. Wiegner, L., Hange, D., Björkelund, C., & Ahlborg, G., Jr (2015). Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression and anxiety in a working age population seeking primary care--an observational study. BMC family practice, 16, 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12875-015-0252-7 
  5. Mifsud, S., Schembri, E. L., & Gruppetta, M. (2018). Stress-induced hyperglycaemia. British journal of hospital medicine (London, England : 2005), 79(11), 634–639. https://doi.org/10.12968/hmed.2018.79.11.634 
  6. Miller W. L. (2018). The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis: A Brief History. Hormone research in paediatrics, 89(4), 212–223. https://doi.org/10.1159/000487755 
  7. Lee, D. Y., Kim, E., & Choi, M. H. (2015). Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress. BMB reports, 48(4), 209–216. https://doi.org/10.5483/bmbrep.2015.48.4.275 
  8. Miaskowski, C., Paul, S. M., Snowberg, K., Abbott, M., Borno, H., Chang, S., Chen, L. M., Cohen, B., Hammer, M. J., Kenfield, S. A., Kober, K. M., Levine, J. D., Pozzar, R., Rhoads, K. F., Van Blarigan, E. L., & Van Loon, K. (2020). Stress and Symptom Burden in Oncology Patients During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of pain and symptom management, 60(5), e25–e34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2020.08.037 
  9. Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Habash, D. L., Fagundes, C. P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W. B., & Belury, M. A. (2015). Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity. Biological psychiatry, 77(7), 653–660. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018 
  10. Geiker, N., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2018). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa?. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 19(1), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12603 
  11. Kline, C. E., Chasens, E. R., Bizhanova, Z., Sereika, S. M., Buysse, D. J., Imes, C. C., Kariuki, J. K., Mendez, D. D., Cajita, M. I., Rathbun, S. L., & Burke, L. E. (2021). The association between sleep health and weight change during a 12-month behavioral weight loss intervention. International journal of obesity (2005), 45(3), 639–649. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-020-00728-8 
  12. Salve, J., Pate, S., Debnath, K., & Langade, D. (2019). Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus, 11(12), e6466. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.6466
  13. Williams, J. L., Everett, J. M., D'Cunha, N. M., Sergi, D., Georgousopoulou, E. N., Keegan, R. J., McKune, A. J., Mellor, D. D., Anstice, N., & Naumovski, N. (2020). The Effects of Green Tea Amino Acid L-Theanine Consumption on the Ability to Manage Stress and Anxiety Levels: a Systematic Review. Plant foods for human nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 75(1), 12–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11130-019-00771-5