5 ways stress makes you gain weight

You’ve been stressed out lately and eat comfortably like there’s no tomorrow. Then “tomorrow” comes along, and your belly is a little bigger. Is it just the result of the extra calories you eat or is there something more to stress and weight gain? The answer is a bit of both. “Stress is the perfect storm for gaining weight and having trouble losing weight down the road,” says Dr. Bartolome Burguera, endocrinologist and president of the Institute of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Cleveland Clinic.

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Here are five ways stress makes you gain weight.

Chronic stress triggers cravings

When you are stressed out, you might want to eat junk food. This could be due to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and the “hunger” hormone ghrelin, which stimulate appetite and promote fat and sugar (carbohydrate) intake. So there you are, instinctively looking for pizza, burgers or mac-n-cheese – and you might find that you like it. “Ghrelin plays a big role in hedonic eating behavior (pleasure of eating). It makes you feel better after you eat, ”says Burguera.

Plus, foods high in sugar can help raise the brain’s chemical serotonin levels, inhibiting activity in areas of the brain that produce and process anxiety, and literally ward off stress. Unfortunately, the effect is brief, usually resulting in one junk food frenzy after another. It can increase blood sugar, reduce satiety (a feeling of fullness), decrease metabolism (your energy expenditure) and gain weight.

Chronic stress makes insulin less effective

We need the hormone insulin to get blood sugar into cells. But insulin may not work as well when you are chronically stressed, which can lead to fat storage, obesity, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Studies show that prolonged physical and even mental stress can lead to a build-up of harmful inflammatory compounds called free radicals in our bodies, damaging cells and leading to decreased insulin release as well as an overall inability to accept and to use insulin inside our body. cells. We have seen an increase in physical and mental stressors over the past two years during the pandemic. Interestingly, an increase in new diabetes diagnoses was also reported during this same time period. The direct cause of the increase in diabetes is unclear, but it is likely that some of the stress-induced insulin resistance played a role, ”says Gabrielle Gambino, registered dietitian at Weill Cornell Medical Center .

Chronic stress leads to more belly fat

If you are looking at a bigger belly, part of it could be due to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Cortisol increases the accumulation of fat,” says Burguera.

In particular, cortisol contributes to abdominal or visceral fat, the fat that collects around your vital organs. “Visceral fat is more likely to cause insulin resistance and diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol and cardiovascular disease,” says Burguera.

Ghrelin also contributes to the formation of fat. “In the days of hunting and gathering, it was a great thing for human survival. Fat stores could be used during long periods of fasting, so increased nutrient intake due to stress was beneficial. However, in 2021, few of us are going to hunt and gather for days in a row. The closest to that is walking the aisles of my grocery store on Sunday mornings, ”Gambino explains.

Chronic stress leads to insomnia

Cortisol is not just a stress hormone; it helps regulate other aspects of health, including sleep. Healthy cortisol levels help you wake up in the morning. But high cortisol levels are associated with interrupted or reduced sleep and increased fat storage and hunger. A study by British researchers, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggested that people who were partially sleep deprived were consuming almost 400 more calories per day than people who were not.

If you are tired of not sleeping, you might not want to be physically active either. “We may not be moving as much as usual due to fatigue from not sleeping, which also reduces the amount of fuel burned during the day, leading to weight gain,” says Gambino.

Meanwhile, lack of sleep contributes to chronic stress, creating a vicious cycle.

Chronic stress sabotages your workout

Stress compromises the effects of your exercise routine. In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the Yale Stress Center at Yale University School of Medicine found that psychological stress inhibits muscle recovery after intense resistance exercise. This may be in part because cortisol is a catabolic (breaking down muscle) hormone, dampening the effects of anabolic (muscle building) hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone.

Lose weight stress

It takes a multi-faceted approach to shedding the pounds you’ve gained from chronic stress. One strategy is to eat healthier foods. “Because stress increases inflammation, we want to maximize the consumption of foods containing antioxidants that reduce levels of inflammation and protect cells from damage,” says Gambino. “Aim for the rainbow of fruits and vegetables.”

She also suggests that you keep your blood sugar as stable as possible by avoiding fried, sugary, and starchy foods and eating more fiber.

High fiber sources include:

  • Whole grains, such as quinoa or brown rice.
  • Whole grain bread, such as whole wheat or oat bread.
  • Nuts, such as almonds, cashews, or walnuts.
  • Seeds, such as flax seeds or chia seeds.
  • Green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli or kale.

And above all, try to eliminate the causes of stress. “Write down your stressors,” advises Burguera. “What can you do about them? Who can help you? If you can control your stressors, cortisol and insulin will decrease and your weight will improve.

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