Can Stress Lead to Weight Gain?

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on April 25, 2017

Is your life stressful? It may not only be limiting your happiness—it could lead to weight gain.

Stress that doesn’t let up for months or years can make you more likely to pack on pounds, studies show.

“When you’re stressed, your body undergoes changes in cortisol, serotonin and neuropeptide Y levels that help regulate weight,” said Natalie Klawonn, M.D., a weight-loss specialist with Carilion Clinic Internal Medicine. "And when cortisol levels rise, it can increase your hunger and make you crave sugary or fatty foods."

Chronic stress can also increase fat storage, especially around your waist, which in turn ups your chances of developing metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that raises your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Unfortunately, more than half of Dr. Klawonn’s patients in the Roanoke Valley report feeling “very stressed.” They constantly tell her, “I’m so busy.”

“It’s harder today,” said Dr. Klawonn. “Our expectations are high at work and at home. We are doing more for our kids, and we expect more from them so they’ll grow up to be successful. The pace of life is faster, and everything is supposed to be perfect.”

At the same time that we’re increasing our activities, we’re sleeping less and taking fewer vacations.

“The stress we feel is definitely thought to be one of the reasons that obesity is on the rise,” Dr. Klawonn said.

Her advice?

  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. It will help you handle stress and regulate your weight.
  • Leave your TV and screens out of the bedroom—they trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime
  • Exercise is important. It calms you and makes you more resilient.
  • Spend time with friends and family—your support network
  • Limit caffeine after noon so it doesn’t interfere with sleep
  • Eat enough lean protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods to give your body the nutrients it needs
  • Practice yoga, meditation or Tai chi to help you relax
  • Try eating almond or other nut butters to counteract sugar cravings
  • If you crave crunchy foods like potato chips, try healthier foods that crunch like apples, celery or carrot sticks or cucumbers
  • Consider seeing a good counselor
  • Avoid alcohol or other addictive substances. They tend to make things worse.

The important thing is to not let stress get the upper hand. Take time for yourself, even it’s just 15 minutes. Go outside, take a calming walk and enjoy nature. It will definitely pay dividends.