Can gaining weight be caused by stress?

There are some studies that have found a correlation of stress and weight gain. Stress can impact many systems of our body and may leave us overweight, exhausted, and at higher risk for getting diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. People can react to stressors in different ways. If a person feels that a stressor is challenging her control over a situation, she may take on the “fight” response and subsequently the hormone norepinephrine is released. If one feels a loss of control over the stressor then the “flight” hormone epinephrine is released. If the stress persists and one feels hopeless or “defeated”, then the hypothalamus in the brain is stimulated which causes a chain of events ending in the release of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal cortex. The body reacts differently during the various stress reactions. The “fight” and “flight” response cause the heart to beat faster and subsequently there is a release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream. The “defeat” response (cortisol) can increase abdominal obesity, suppress the immune system, and cause an increase in fat creation. Increased levels of cortisol may also lead to increased blood sugar levels by blocking the effect of insulin. Cells that are “glucose starved” for long periods of time will rebound by sending hunger signals to the brain. This can lead to overeating and then to weight gain.

Over the years, many medications and supplements have been produced to block the negative effect of cortisol. There is little to no evidence that blocking cortisol will lead to weight loss (Mayo Clinic). So, if you feel that you are stressed and you have noticed that you have also gained weight, I would urge you to take steps to manage your stress levels. Begin a journal on what areas of your life cause you the most stress and then start to formulate a plan on how to best manage these stressors. You may wish to seek professional counseling to find specific ideas on ways to relax and handle what is going on in your life. Other ways to help reduce stress could be daily physical activity, meditation, and positive social support. Finally, in addition to managing stress levels, take control of your dietary intake also. Plan ahead make sure you are prepared to pack healthy lunches and cook nutritious dinners for you and your family. Consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian. She can assist you in creating healthy meal plans and giving you good advice on weight management.

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