Stress and Weight Gain

Stress and Weight Gain
By Heather Hamilton, PhD., LMHC, NCC, DCC  |  ©2022BreakThrough!

Stress and Weight Gain…What Gives?

You’d think that stress and all that extra nervous energy would cause us to lose weight, but for most of us, the opposite is true!  Stress has the power to make us gain weight even when we cut back on meals and food.

The Science Please

The body’s stress response (SR) is an amazing and highly adaptive neurological system.

  • First, the SR system immediately ensures that our energy and resources are directed to cope with the actual (or anticipated) danger.
  • Then when the danger has passed, the SR system stimulates our appetite so that we are motivated to restore our energy reserves.

However, when stressors are unrelenting the increased demand on the SR system takes a toll on our minds and body. Initially, after we experience a stressful event, the hypothalamus (Brian) releases a corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). In turn, this releases adrenocorticotrophin (ACTH) into the bloodstream that activates the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands release cortisol as well as norepinephrine and noradrenaline.

Cortisol has a dual SR function.

First, it raises blood glucose levels in the body and brain to provide energy and alertness. It prioritizes our fight, flight, or withdrawal behaviors so we can slay (or run from) the dragon. In this phase, it diverts the body’s resources away from less pressing needs (such as finding food).

When the event has passed, however, the second act of cortisol is to slow the stress response back down and decrease the production of CRH. This results in a glucocorticoid rebound. This rebound stimulates hunger and an all-consuming drive to eat [1]. For people with chronic stress, the system never really fully shuts down.

Simpler Science Please

A little more simply, when we’re stressed, cortisol (the primary stress hormone), increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and boosts the brain’s use of glucose. In this phase of the stress response, we’re depleting available energy resources. Initially, we have a drop in appetite but it’s followed by a crazy rebound urge to replenish reserves. At the same time elevated levels of cortisol increase our cravings for high carb (high-glycemic) food items making chips and cookies seem even more attractive [2].

Stress and Weight Gain

  • There is activation and an increase of glucocorticoids
  • This results in increased appetite (via action in the hypothalamus)
  • Visceral fat accumulation increases
  • The brain becomes desensitized to leptin release (leptin signals us to stop eating)

It’s well known that stress causes or contributes to numerous illnesses and conditions. A metabolic disorder, obesity, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders are among these.

Stress also exacerbates psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder . Throughout the Breakthrough! program you’ll learn to recognize your unique stressors, develop cognitive and emotional coping techniques, and develop stress reduction skills.


      We hope you have enjoyed this article from The BreakThrough! Program.

References & Related Topics

1.Sominsky, L., & Spencer, S. J. (2014). Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 434.

2. Ferreira de Sá, D. S., Schulz, A., Streit, F. E., Turner, J. D., Oitzl, M. S., Blumenthal, T. D., & Schächinger, H. (2014). Cortisol, but not intranasal insulin, affects the central processing of visual food cues. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 50, 311–320.

3. McEwen B. S. (2008). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European journal of pharmacology, 583(2-3), 174–185.

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