Can stress affect my weight?
Reviewed by Dr Mitra Dutt
We all experience stress from time to time, but for some people it’s an ongoing issue that causes unpleasant symptoms.
If you’re going through a stressful period, you might have experienced symptoms such as weight changes – read on to find out why.
Why does stress affect my weight?
There are two main reasons why stress can affect your weight:
- It has a direct, physical impact on your body
- It leads to unhealthy lifestyle changes
When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help our bodies prepare for scary situations, causing our hearts to beat faster, and making us feel more alert.
If you often feel very stressed, your body will be releasing these hormones regularly. Over time this can have a big impact on your body and make you feel physically unwell, causing symptoms such as the following:
- Problems sleeping
- Feeling very tired
- Chest pains
- Indigestion and heartburn
- Constipation and diarrhoea
Lots of people also find that their appetite is affected, and that they end up eating more or less than usual.
As well as physical symptoms, there are mental symptoms associated with stress, including irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. These can lead to a worsening of physical health, and to unhealthy lifestyle changes, including:
- Eating more junk food
- Drinking more alcohol
- Skipping meals
- Staying up late
- Avoiding exercise
Stress and blood sugar
Another physical aspect to stress is that it can affect your blood sugar levels. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol make it harder for insulin to work, and this causes your blood sugar levels to rise. Heightened blood sugar is associated with weight changes, and serious conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Stress and weight gain
With all of the above in mind, it’s not surprising that periods of stress can lead to weight gain. Stress-related risk factors for weight gain include:
- Increased appetite
- Cravings for junk food
- Lack of sleep
- Not exercising enough
All of these factors can combine with other stress symptoms to cause a negative spiral, leading to greater weight gain. For instance, feeling so stressed that you can’t sleep may stop you from doing regular exercise, which in turn worsens feelings of anxiety and stress, perpetuating the cycle and making it harder to break.
Stress and weight loss
While many people put on weight during periods of stress, others lose weight.
Stress is known to cause a loss of appetite for some people, meaning that they end up eating less food. The circumstances surrounding the stress may also lead to poor eating habits – for instance, if you’re working long shifts or irregular hours, you may not find the time to cook for yourself.
What’s more, the stress hormones that our bodies release can speed up our metabolism, causing us to burn calories faster.
In more extreme cases, prolonged stress may lead to depression, which can also cause weight loss.
Treatments for stress
If you’re feeling really stressed, and you’re finding that it’s impacting your daily life, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP. You might find that having counselling or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) helps you learn how to cope with your stress, and break out of negative thought patterns.
You may also be able to manage your stress by tackling some of the things that are causing it. A really good first step is to ask for help – for instance, from your manager at work, or from a debt charity that can advise you about money worries.
In some cases, medication might be an appropriate treatment for stress. If you feel that you can't tackle the stress on your own, or if it's affecting your day-to-day life or people around you talk to your GP or contact Mind.
Treatments for weight gain
If you’ve experienced weight gain after going through a period of stress, know that you’re not alone. This is common for lots of people, and is probably just a temporary reaction to that stressful time. Following a healthy diet and exercise regime should help you lose weight and get back to normal.
Of course, some people find weight loss a lot more challenging, even with diet and exercise, which is why medicated treatments are available. Here at Online Doctor we can prescribe the weight loss tablets Xenical or Orlistat to people with a BMI over 30, or anyone with a BMI over 28 who has weight-related health issues.
Find out more at our online weight loss clinic.