Why Does Stress Lead to Weight Gain?

August 30th 2015

Nicole Charky

Unique research is revealing that there's more to stress and weight gain than experts may have known before: it's not just the brain that manages stress; it happens on a larger scale, controlling your metabolism in your body fat.

Stress happens. If you have ever experienced a hectic work schedule or an emotional breakup, then you know these roller-coaster life events often trigger stress. Late nights or long days make you more vulnerable to bad decisions and more prone to late night In-N-Out cruises, instead of more health-conscious options. In time, stress and weight gain can become a perfect storm known as stress eating or emotional eating, leaving you at risk for obesity.

Research shows that weight gain goes beyond just the squeeze you might feel if you wear too-tight pants. When body fat, or adipose tissue, sends a message to your brain, it "starts a vicious cycle where you eat because you're stressed out and then the weight you gain heightens the alarm response which leads to more stress eating," Shape reports.

If you struggle with weight gain and subsequently aim to lose weight, it turns out you're not alone. According to Women's Health Mag, a survey of more than 1,800 people, in 2007 by the American Psychological Association, re­ports that 43 percent of the people surveyed admitted that they overate or ate unhealthy foods whenever they were stressed in the previous month. It also found that women were more likely to overeat during stressful times than men.

Stress can often induce headaches, digestive problems, bad sleep, depression, and muscle tension. And as recent research explains, it also can disrupt your metabolism. Stress connects to weight gain because, according to studies, a high level of the stress hormone cortisol can drive you to reach for Cheetos—or whatever your grub-vice might be—and can provoke an increased appetite. This makes it much more likely to increase and accumulate belly fat. Unfortunately, this can also lead to burning fewer calories.

Though plenty of information exists about stress and weight gain, new research explains why when it comes to stress and weight gain, it's a two-way street.

It's not just in your mind.

Researchers from the University of Florida Health found that body fat can send a signal that changes the way your brain identifies stress and metabolism. What exactly prompts those signals is still a mystery, but experts say acknowledging that the pathway exists, and educating yourself more about it can help to break the cycle. Too much fat, according to the study, can impair your body's ability to tell your brain to stop stressing and shut off the typical response of stress eating.

"It moved our understanding of stress control to include other parts of the body. Before this, everyone thought that the regulation of stress was mainly due to the brain. It's not just in the brain. This study suggests that stress regulation occurs on a much larger scale, including body systems controlling metabolism, such as fat," said James Herman, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati.

By looking at a glucocorticoid receptor in fat tissue, researchers discovered that signals to parts of the brain that control stress and metabolism. In addition, the receptor can also directly regulate how you respond to stress in a good way.

"The stress response in the short term is adaptive. It's going to help you cope with stress," said Eric Krause, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Pharmacy's department of pharmacodynamics. "The idea that fat is actually talking to the brain to dampen stress is new."

Using mice as models, researchers uncovered that steroid hormones called glucocorticoids activate their receptors in fat tissue in a system that influences "the main component of the metabolic stress response. Because glucocorticoid signaling is crucial to regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, fat tissue can directly affect central nervous system functions that link obesity, metabolic disease and stress-related problems, researchers concluded." 

Ways to manage stress and weight gain.

First, you have to address compulsive eating. This might involve tackling the crazy lifestyle you lead and even altering the way you handle stress management.

The way you struggle has to change, as tough times and stressful moments can send your brain into panic mode on a vicious cycle that can leave you eating at times when you probably don't need to be. When you can identify that, then you can work toward finding more solutions.

Here are seven tips to beat stress and set yourself up for success.

  1. Breathe. Do it before you eat. Do it all day, naturally. There's a benefit to controlled breathing, which can effectively lower cortisol levels.
  2. Sleep. Often, our best fix to beat stress and avoid weight gain can come from adequate sleep.
  3. Eat when you're hungry. Just ask: 'Am I really hungry?' Are you truly hungry or do you feel anxious or stressed out? Be realistic and honest with yourself.
  4. Adjust those meal proportions. If the size of your serving is out of whack, then just take a moment to change it. Save some for later or split it with a friend.
  5. Exercise. Regular activity is a proven method to manage stress and weight gain.
  6. Relax, meditate, and simply take time for yourself.
  7. Rely on your friends and family to support you. The stronger your support system is, the more connected you will can be to reaching your life goals. If you need professional help, you can also look to counseling.