Stress and Weight Gain: Understanding the Connection

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Lauren Panoff

Published 04/09/2024

We all have unique schedules, personal challenges and responsibilities. But there’s one thing almost everyone can relate to while hustling through the 21st century: stress. For many, stress and weight gain go hand in hand.

Can stress cause weight gain? If so, why does stress cause weight gain?

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, but when it’s ongoing, it can have unpleasant consequences, like promoting unwanted weight gain.

We’re examining the relationship between stress and weight gain, including lifestyle factors that might make it worse and how to prevent weight gain from stress.

We often view stress as a big looming monster that keeps us awake at night — and sometimes, it is. However, there’s actually a purpose behind short-term stress.

Stress is innately a survival mechanism. Think about the last time you were chased by a giant grizzly bear (okay, just imagine it). Your body responded in fight-or-flight mode, meaning you either battled it out with your stressor (said bear) or ran like heck away from it to safety.

Stress is a physiological reaction triggered by the perception of a threat or stressor. Under stress, your body activates a complex cascade of hormonal and neurological processes to prepare you to respond to it.

The brain chemicals adrenaline and noradrenaline are released into your blood, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and providing quick energy by mobilizing glucose stores in your body.

At the same time, the stress response suppresses non-essential functions, like those related to digestion and reproduction, to conserve energy for immediate use.

Stress Hormones and Weight Gain

When it comes to stress and weight gain, the most relevant piece of the stress response is the release of cortisol, a stress hormone.

In the moment, cortisol helps you stay focused on your stressor. However, high cortisol levels are associated with more negative effects of stress — like unwanted weight gain.

Research suggests gender differences for the stress response. It’s often characterized by “fight-or-flight” in men and “tend-and-befriend” in women. Tend-and-befriend means you might respond to stress by tending to those in need and seeking connections with (befriending) others.

Also, stress-related anxiety and depression are more frequent in women, and the link between female stress and weight gain is more prevalent.

Can stress make you gain weight? Yes, and it’s primarily due to the link between stress hormones and weight gain.

High levels of cortisol can increase appetite, particularly for higher-calorie, sugary or high-fat comfort foods.

Stress can disrupt sleep, making you feel crummy and fatigued. Sleep deprivation can mess with your body’s ability to regulate hunger hormones like leptin and ghrelin, which can further promote overeating.

Chronic stress can also contribute to the buildup of abdominal fat associated with obesity and metabolic syndrome — conditions that increase the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Stress itself may not directly cause weight gain, but it can lead to an out-of-whack appetite, cravings and extra fat storage.

Anxiety, like stress, may indirectly influence weight gain. Some folks experience cravings, especially for comfort foods, that might lead to overeating.

Others may experience a suppressed appetite or skip meals. Either way, these altered eating patterns can disrupt your natural hunger-fullness cues.

Anxiety is also really good at throwing your sleep out of whack, contributing to fatigue and increased cortisol.

While certain habits worsen stress, unmanaged stress can also worsen certain habits (or make it harder to make healthier choices).

For instance, eating lots of ultra-processed foods high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugar can increase stress by disrupting blood sugar levels and affecting brain chemicals. At the same time, chronic stress can drive us toward eating more comfort foods.

A sedentary lifestyle (meaning you get very little daily movement) can heighten stress levels. But being under stress often makes you want to just lie down.

Poor sleep can increase stress, yet stress is a thief of restfulness. Though social connections and support can buffer stress, isolation might be more attractive when stressed.

All these things play a role in stress-related weight gain.

The point is, stress is a multifaceted part of the human experience, and we all struggle with it in different ways. The link between stress and lifestyle underscores the need for holistic stress management.

When stress hormones remain elevated, it can make you tired and seek comfort foods. Ongoing stress can ultimately promote:

  • Weakened immunity. Unmanaged stress might make you more susceptible to illness and infection.

  • Mental health effects. Ongoing stress can lead to chronic anxiety, depression and burnout, impairing quality of life and well-being.

  • Heart disease. Stress can increase the risk of heart disease through frequent overeating, smoking and inactivity, as well as increasing blood pressure and inflammation.

Impaired brain function. Unmanaged stress can impair memory, attention and decision-making. It may also increase the risk of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease over time.

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Managing stress is important not just for overall well-being but also for preventing unwanted weight gain.

Alleviating stress isn’t a one-and-done thing but rather a lifestyle approach that incorporates everyday habits for dealing with stressors in a healthier way.

Here’s what you can do to manage stress and keep related weight gain at bay.

Get More Movement

Physical activity does more than improve fitness. It’s an essential aspect of stress management. In fact, your body craves movement.

Being active triggers the release of endorphins, which, in the words of our girl Elle Woods, “make you happy.” Okay, it’s not that simple — but endorphins are brain chemicals that promote a sense of well-being and act as natural mood-lifters.

Regular exercise helps alleviate stress and provides a constructive outlet for pent-up energy and tension so you can release stress in a productive manner.

Whether it’s a tennis match or getting your steps in with a brisk walk, exercise can significantly reduce stress levels, supporting mental and emotional resilience.

Get Better Sleep

Sleep is when your body finally gets the chance to relax, rejuvenate and repair.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re pretty much guaranteed to feel like garbage the next day. Lack of sleep can also cause stress levels to skyrocket, making it harder to cope with everyday stressors.

Being rested stabilizes your emotions and bolsters your ability to face stressful situations. Set yourself up to get the recommended seven to nine hours per night by:

  • Establishing a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day

  • Creating a relaxing bedtime routine you look forward to, which might include things like reading a book, taking a bubble bath or doing a meditation

  • Optimizing your sleep environment with cozy bedding, soft pillows, blackout curtains, breathable PJs and white noise (if needed)

Learn more about how sleep affects weight loss in our blog.

Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods

Food is meant for both nutrition and joy. Making healthier food choices most of the time is vital for wellness, and nutrition is critical for mental health.

Whether it’s chocolate-covered pretzels or a juicy cheeseburger and fries, it’s common to turn to comfort foods that are often high in added sugar and fat when we’re stressed.

They’re really good at providing comfort in the moment, but in the long run, they can exacerbate stress and promote emotional eating habits.

On the other hand, fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains provide essential nutrients for your body and mind.

Nutrient-dense foods regulate blood sugar levels, stabilize mood and boost energy, delivering the resources your body needs to effectively cope with stress.

While perfection is unrealistic, it’s important to be mindful of nutrient-poor foods like sugary snacks, soda and other ultra-processed foods. Explore healthy snacks for weight loss in our blog.

Hydration is also essential for counteracting stress weight gain. Drinking plenty of water supports digestion and metabolism and helps prevent overeating.

Try Meditation

Meditation can be great for managing stress levels — and anyone can do it. The practice essentially involves sitting still for a set time (like 10 minutes) and focusing on your breath.

Not sure where to start? There are lots of meditation apps that make it easy. You can also check out our guide on how to meditate for beginners.

Seek Support

Sometimes, when the burden of stress is overwhelming, additional support is necessary.

Friends and family can be wonderful confidants during times of stress, but unbiased support can be invaluable — in other words, talking to an expert.

Mental health professionals like therapists can offer resources and coping strategies and help you explore new perspectives. They can also provide a safe, non-judgmental space to express your feelings, fostering healing and personal growth.

If you’re trying to tackle both stress and weight loss, here are a few other things to keep in mind.

Weight Loss Medication

When nutrition, exercise and lifestyle tweaks aren’t enough, weight loss medications can be helpful for some folks.

Though they’re typically prescribed to people with a body mass index (BMI) above a certain threshold or who have obesity-related health conditions, it could be worth a conversation with your healthcare provider.

Weight loss medications work by suppressing appetite, increasing metabolism or limiting absorption of carbohydrates or fat. They’re meant to be used alongside other healthy habits, like a nutritious eating plan and exercise.

Some of the most popular and effective options include:

  • Topiramate. Often used as an anti-seizure medication, topiramate supports weight loss by altering appetite-regulating brain chemicals to make you feel full.

  • Bupropion. While this is primarily an antidepressant, it promotes weight loss by increasing levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, reducing appetite. It’s typically used with naltrexone for weight loss and sold under the brand name Contrave®.

  • Naltrexone and bupropion. Naltrexone is commonly used for alcohol and opioid dependence. But when combined with bupropion, it can reduce food cravings and reinforce healthier eating behaviors by targeting reward centers in your brain.

  • Metformin. Best known as a type 2 diabetes drug, metformin can reduce appetite, support insulin resistance and help regulate blood sugar levels.

  • Glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP-1s). GLP-1s help with weight loss by increasing feelings of fullness and slowing digestion. They mimic the action of naturally occurring GLP-1 hormones in your body, which regulate appetite and promote satiety (a full feeling).

Explore your custom weight loss medication kit with Hers.

Regular Exercise

We already talked about movement for stress management, but physical activity is also crucial for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

It burns energy, builds muscle mass and boosts metabolism. Exercise also improves overall fitness and reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Think of ways to incorporate more activity into your routine and find things you enjoy, like:

  • Jogging

  • Joining a group fitness class

  • Meeting friends at the gym for a lifting session

  • Biking

  • Playing tennis or basketball with others

  • Swimming laps at the rec center

For general health, experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week (that’s about 21 minutes a day on average). For weight loss, this is closer to 200 to 300 minutes. Resistance training twice a week is also suggested.

But this is quite a bit, so don’t feel pressure to go all out right away. Everyone starts their fitness journey in a different place, and that’s okay!

Stress and weight gain are an unfortunate pair. But fortunately, there are things you can do to manage both:

  • Prioritize healthy habits. Good nutrition and regular exercise are both essential for stress management and healthy weight maintenance.

  • Lean on support systems. Whether it’s friends, family or professional therapy, mental health requires social support. Relying on loved ones or experts can also help with stress management and weight management.

  • Consider weight loss medications. If lifestyle habits aren’t enough, weight loss medications might be a helpful addition. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if this route makes sense for you.

Interested in pursuing a personalized weight loss plan? Start by taking our free assessment.

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