A person experiencing stress while working from home.
Healthy Living

The Connection Between Stress and Your Weight

May 21 2021

The word “stress” is so commonly used, we tend to discount the profound effect it has on our lives. In fact, did you know that stress is a common cause of weight gain?

However, it’s more complicated than that. If your stress is chronic, a number of events take place in your brain and body, which then ultimately trigger weight gain.

Here’s a basic roadmap of what’s going on:

  • A part of your brain, called the amygdala, senses danger, or stress in your environment.
  • The amygdala then signals another part of your brain, the hypothalamus, to start a fight-or-flight response to this feeling.
  • The hypothalamus then signals your adrenal glands to release the hormones, called cortisol and adrenalin, to handle the stressful event.

Adrenalin helps you take in more oxygen and increases blood flow to muscles to increase your speed. Though this hormone may make you feel a bit pumped up, it’s not part of the weight gain issue.

Cortisol is the usual culprit that causes weight gain during stressful times. Let’s dig in a little deeper to see the connection between stress, cortisol and weight gain.

Understanding cortisol

Cortisol can be an important and helpful hormone when it appears in the right amount. The hormone reduces inflammation, helps burn fat into energy and stabilizes blood sugar levels that affect appetite. It even helps you wake up feeling refreshed in the morning. But when there’s too much of it in your system, it can cause weight gain.

Cortisol gets your body ready to fight or flee from a stressful situation. If your brain thinks you’re in danger, it wants your body to maintain calories and fat to fight off the threat and to keep warm. As the high levels of cortisol course through your bloodstream, the hormone increases your appetite, causes insulin resistance and slows your metabolism. This leads the body to store fat and calories to help you cope with stress.

Reducing your cortisol levels

When you reduce your stress, your cortisol levels will also decrease.

To lower your stress, you may need to focus on your mind and body. By doing so, your brain will feel less threatened, and it’ll tell your adrenal gland to lower your cortisol levels.

Follow these eight tips to manage stressful symptoms:

  • Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes daily.
  • Get plenty of quality sleep.
  • Nourish your body with healthier food choices.
  • Reduce your caffeine and alcohol consumption.
  • Streamline your daily to-do list and say “no” more often.
  • Go outdoors and enjoy nature.
  • Practice deep breathing and meditation, even if it’s for five minutes.
  • Reach out to your family, friends, a therapist and social support system.

Eat stress-busting foods

Making healthy choices can be tough when you’re under stress. Your brain is focused on other problems besides food choices, so you’ll reach for anything comforting.

Fortunately, stress-busting foods do exist. Here are a few that will help you handle your weight:

  • Complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, release a feel-good hormone called serotonin.
  • Oranges, with high levels of vitamin C, may reduce cortisol levels.
  • Fatty omega-3 fishes may reduce surges of cortisol in your system.
  • Black tea may help you lower your cortisol levels and is especially good for your weight if taken without sugar.
  • Nuts and seeds in moderate amounts have plenty of vitamin B, which will help you stay calm.

Another way to manage your stress and weight is to make an appointment with your primary care provider. They can help you a psychologist or therapist, a nutritionist or dietitian and review the medications you may be taking that are affecting your stress levels.

Find a Bon Secours primary care provider near you.

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