Is there an association between stress and weight gain?

Is cortisol, a by product of stress, responsible for weight gain?

Let’s see what the scientific evidence is!




Stress is defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological tension in your body. In everyday life, everyone experiences stress which can be short term or long term. A certain level of stress on a daily basis its ok but a higher level of stress for a long period of time might have a health impact on your body. Some of the common signs and symptoms for prolonged stress are:

  • Mood swings
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sleeping problems
  • Headaches
  • Frequent colds
  • Feeling tired & low energy
  • Muscle tension, especially the neck and shoulders
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Anxiety and depression

It is important to understand how stress is affecting your physical and mental health. However, it is also important to recognize how your mental health might be affecting your stress level. In fact, studies show that psychosocial stress was associated with greater weight gain both in men and women. During long periods of stress the cortisol level increases which are associated with abdominal obesity.

What is cortisol?


Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the body when the brain perceive a stimulus of the thread. This leads to a fight or flight response which immediately produce a high heart rate and increase energy requirements. As soon as this happens our body will stop insulin production so that it prevents any available glucose from being stored. In addition, high cortisol levels will be produced in order to use the available glucose and glycogen stores for energy.


Ways on how cortisol induce weight gain


  1. Increased appetite

The above mentioned available glucose during prolonged stress periods increases the appetite for high calorific foods. In fact, this studyshows that women eat more calories and sweets when they are exposed to stress.


  1. Increased hunger

When we eat, our body produces insulin which helps the glucose from food to be used by our cells. However, during prolonged stress levels the body’s metabolic pathways changes with the result that not enough insulin is produced. In turn this will lead to high glucose levels in the blood. Since the body cells will not be able to use the available glucose, they will continue signaling the need for food to the brain. Therefore, your body will keep telling you that you are hungry.


  1. Increased belly fat

Abdominal fat has more cortisol receptors and therefore this hormone is able to transport and store more fat in this area. Evidence also shows that people who are under stress burn less calories than non-stressed individuals. This means that due to high cortisol levels our body is able to metabolize fat at a slower rate.


How to manage stress levels and diet


Although some situations of stressful situations are inevitable we can try to manage it. Here are some strategies for maintaining your stress levels under your control:

  1. Exercise

As everybody knows exercise is beneficial for weight loss, proper immune system function, mental health, feeling energized and promotes better sleep. During exercise the feel good hormones are produced in our body, known as endorphins. These help to reduce stress. According to the WHO , we should opt for 30 minutes of exercise every day. With that said I would suggest that it is best to aim for a low – moderate intensity exercise beacuse high intensity levels of exercise can increase cortisol levels.


  1. Meditation

Meditation is a mind and body practice with a known history of increasing calmness, physical relaxation, mental health, reduces stress and enhance your overall wellbeing. Therefore, as meditation helps you to calm down it decrease your cortisol levels and will also help you to improve your sleep quality.


  1. Enough sleep

Sleep is important for a person’s health and wellbeing as its process affects your physical and mental function. It also affects good immunity performance and how our metabolism work. If you are not sleeping enough this will increase your cortisol levels and increase cravings for sugary foods.


  1. Good diet

A healthy well balanced diet is essential to keep our gut happy. By now, evidence show that our gut is our ‘second brain.’ In fact, the gut produces 90% of serotonin, a hormone which is responsible for feeling positive and cheerful. In addition, a well-balanced diet including plenty of fruit, vegetables and omega-3 promotes reduction of cortisol production and therefore stress relief.


As it can be concluded, it is important that if you want to lose weight you keep your stress levels in check. Apart for losing weight for aesthetics reasons, managing high stress levels are also important to prevent health complications. If you follow the strategies advised for managing stress is not enough please consult a doctor or a healthcare professional.


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