Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

The model of weight gain that most people are familiar with has to do with consuming too many calories.

You hear it all the time, “don’t eat that or you’ll get fat” or “if you don’t exercise, you’re going to gain weight.” The foods we eat or lack of exercise are most commonly associated with gaining weight.

You would be hard pressed to find someone saying, “You better calm down or you’re never going to lose all that weight.” But the truth is that stress can and does make you fat.

The model of weight gain that most people are familiar with has to do with consuming too many calories. This model is still relevant for us when we talk about stress, but stress adds a twist to this.

When we are under stress, especially prolonged stress (physical, emotional or environmental) our body’s chemistry is changed. This change leads to unhealthy cravings for sweet and salty foods.

Why Salty and Sweet?

Modern humans have come up with new and unique ways of stressing themselves out. In the past, major stressors consisted of events such as food shortage, illness, pregnancy/child rearing, physical work, exposure to the elements and war.

These events typically weren’t everyday experiences and our response was straightforward. Also, these events ended and we had time to recover. This is in addition to the fact that people in the past were very physically active.

Today we have traffic, cell phones, deadlines, noise pollution, picking the children up from school, degenerative diseases, loneliness, depression, war without end and each other to stress over.

Physically we are not adapted to deal with all of this daily stress. Add to that, the fact that many people today are physically inactive and have poor diets and this is nothing less than a recipe for an expanding waistline.

Instead of reducing stressors, using stress reducing techniques or changing our response to stress (reframing), the tendency is to keep going and to self medicate using food. But why food?

The adrenal glands are responsible for our ability to adapt and cope with stress, but when we over burden them, they want a pick me up. Salt feeds the adrenal glands and sugar whips them (as does caffeine).

These foods are the whip and the adrenal glands are the horse. This will keep a person going for a while, but these food cravings and the body’s own chemistry won’t only cause weight gain, but it can also cause all types of health issues as well.

Adrenaline, Cortisol and Serotonin

Many times most of the stress we are experiencing is self-inflicted. Either we are doing too much or our response to stress is unhealthy.

There is only so much one can do in one day, but many people have become addicted to that “rush” they feel when they are very busy.

This “rush” is caused by adrenaline or epinephrine produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and is intended to give us the energy to fight or run away (fight or flight).

Along with the production of adrenaline, the body will also produce cortisol. Slow acting cortisol can cause the most trouble. Adrenaline doesn’t last long in the body and we quickly feel the “crash” after a “rush”. This is when the food cravings set in.

The over abundance of cortisol can cause havoc on our blood sugar levels and can even contribute to causing diabetes. Also, the longer this process goes on, the harder it will be for the body to recover from this “rush” and “crash” cycle.

The other player in this scenario is serotonin. This neuro-transmitter works in the brain to keep our mood elevated. A common side effect of low serotonin is depression. Serotonin also helps us cope with stress, but can easily become depleted when we are under prolonged stress.

We need to replenish our supplies of serotonin from our diet, so if our diet is low in serotonin abundant foods and high in stress, sugar is a substitute, although a poor and short lived one. A lack of serotonin can cause food cravings. There are also people that do not produce enough serotonin.

What Can You Do?

You can accomplish this by snacking on healthy foods. It is difficult to curb cravings when you are hungry. Once you reach the level of hunger, you are more likely to grab the easiest thing than the right type of food.

– Snack on healthy foods

A good snack contains a protein, a fat and a complex carbohydrate (whole grain). It can be cheese and crackers, celery and nut butter (almond, peanut, or cashew), or a bowl of yogurt with fruit and nuts. Have an afternoon and a morning snack.

Interestingly, many of the clients that come to me for weight loss are not eating enough. Once I have them eating more healthy calories and at the appropriate times, they lose weight.

– Eat foods rich in tryptophan (converts to serotonin)

Tryptophan is an amino acid (found in protein foods). To boost your levels, eat protein rich foods like chicken, turkey, nuts, cheeses and beans.

– Eat at regular times

Just like us, our bodies do better on a regular schedule. Have your breakfast within an hour of waking up. Have your lunch between 12-1 p.m. and dinner before 6 p.m.

– Drink Water

Stress is a dehydrating experience. Most people under stress also drink large amounts of coffee, tea and soda, all of which are diuretics and add to the body’s need for more water.

Calculate your water need by taking your weight and dividing it by two. Your answer will give you the amount of water you need to drink in ounces per day, without stress.

Add a minimum of 16 oz of water per day. Also, if you are not used to drinking this amount of water, do it slowly by drinking 8 oz of water for one week and adding in an additional 8 oz glass each week until you reach your ideal water need.

– Choose whole grains

Whole Grains help regulate the blood sugar, keep us full longer and provide us with long lasting fuel for our brain and body. They also contain high amounts of the B vitamins that are quickly depleted in times of stress. The B vitamins help us cope with stress better.

– Don’t bring sweets into the house

If you don’t have them, you can’t eat them-problem solved. If you find yourself making special trips to the store to satisfy your sweet tooth, then you know you have a problem with sugar.

– Sleep and rest

During times of stress, your body needs time to rest and recover. Stress can drain you physically, mentally and emotionally. Depending on the individual, the amount of sleep and rest required will vary.

– Exercise

Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean a physically strenuous activity. Over doing exercise is also a stressor. Be the judge on what type of exercise you find enjoyable and you can also consult with a physical trainer.

In addition to making lifestyle adjustments, pay attention to your response during stressful events. The calming influence of prayer and meditation should not be overlooked.

Prayer, especially regular prayers, in addition to dikr (chanting words of Allah’s Remembrance) can reduce the harmful effects of stress on our body and mind. Make it a habit to remember Allah during times of stress as an effective stress reduction technique.

This article was first published in December 27, 2009 and is currently republished for its importance.
About Anisa Abeytia
Anisa Abeytia, B.A. USC , M.A., Stanford is an integrative health specialist currently pursuing a M.S. in Holistic Nutrition. Over the past ten years Anisa has pursued various fields of holistic and traditional medicine. She has studied at the oldest herbal school in the United States and pursued a two year certificate program in Islamic Healing. She writes regularly on the topics of health and nutrition. She maintains the website Women's Healing Circle, a site dedicated to the natural health of women and their families.