You probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that stress and stress hormones promote weight gain, would you?
But what exactly is stress, and how does it keep you from achieving your weight loss goals?
In fact, there are actually many links between stress hormones and weight.
We’ll talk about six major reasons how stress hormones keep you from your weight loss goals. These include the effect stress has on digestion and gut health, inflammation and the immune system.
Stress can cause cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating.” It can promote fat storage around the waist with its effect on insulin sensitivity. Stress can also be mood-busting and demotivating, not to mention how it worsens sleep.
All of these can work to keep you from your weight loss
Let’s go over the effects of stress and stress hormones, and
exactly how they all tie into weight loss. Then we’ll end off with two
strategies (and several of my best tips) how to manage stress.
Because, as you know, weight loss isn’t just about calories.
What is Stress?
When you hear the word “stress” do you think it’s dangerous
In actual fact, stress itself is a totally normal response
to a sense of danger. It can be your friend or foe.
You usually can’t fully control it.
It’s your body’s way of protecting you with an automatic “fight or flight” reaction. It helps you survive.
Stress can help you focus and give you the instant energy you need when facing an immediate threat.
This infrequent short-term stress can help you to run to your kid when (s)he is hurt, or avoid a collision. It can even help you to meet deadlines or get to appointments on time when running late.
It’s also what makes some people enjoy roller coasters or dangerous activities (skydiving anyone?). Have you heard the term “adrenaline junkie?”
These are examples of infrequent short-lived stress called “acute” stress, or even “good” stress. And when the situation is over, the stress fades and your body goes back to normal.
Ideally, this is how stress should be in your life, infrequent and short-lived.
The problem is in today’s society we are bombarded with too many stressors; too often and for extended periods of time.
It’s the constant and chronic conditions of stress that take their toll on our health and weight loss objectives.
Chronic stress is different, its usually a long-term accumulation of stress from many sources.
This can be from having or caring for someone with a major illness, or long-term relationship problems. Maybe you have a long commute to a not-so-awesome job every single day.
There are many sources of stress, including physical stressors from toxins in our food or environment and of course a wide variety of mental and emotional stressors .
And that chronic stress (“bad” stress) can affect you in so many ways. It can affect your digestion, moods, and sleep. And, not surprisingly, it can affect your ability to lose weight.
In fact studies show that chronic stress is associated with obesity and metabolic disease. And this is especially true for women. Women are at greater risk for stress-induced emotional eating, and obesity.
Chronic stress can negatively affect your digestion, your mood, your health…and keep you from your weight loss goals.
Symptoms of Stress
When your body senses danger (real or imagined), it
immediately reacts with the “fight or flight” reaction to help you…well,
“fight” or “flee”.
Things essential for survival are prioritized. Things like perception, decision making, and energy for your muscles. Your nervous system’s other “rest and digest” functions are put on the back burner until the “danger” passes.
You probably know how stress affects you. Do you get cravings or indigestion? Do you feel more aches and pains, or get sick? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have difficulty losing weight?
Let’s touch on the physical effects of stress, and then dig
into how these effects can keep you from your weight loss goals.
Stress Response – Nerves and Hormones
Stress-related symptoms are from the physiological effects
of stress. Basically, how it affects our nervous system and hormones.
Both of these have profound effects on the body because
they’re trying to help you save your (or someone else’s) life.
First, your nervous system has two sides to it that work in tandem. When one side is turned on, the other is turned off.
The “fight or flight” part of your nervous system that is activated by stress is called the “sympathetic” nervous system.
This side of your nervous system is usually (ideally) nice and quiet. It’s on “standby” until needed.
On the other side there is the “rest, digest and recover” side of your nervous system called the “parasympathetic” nervous system.
So, as you can imagine, when you have chronic stress your body isn’t doing much resting, digesting or healing. And these are all vital for optimal health…and weight loss.
Secondly, let’s talk stress hormones. Have you heard of “cortisol” and “adrenaline?”
When under stress, these hormones are released by your adrenal glands. Adrenal glands look like little walnuts on top of each kidney, and they release a number of hormones, including these stress hormones.
When you perceive danger (real or imagined), this starts a
hormone cascade that moves from your brain to your adrenal glands. It’s
basically like when a bunch of people are in a circle and they’re passing the
ball to the person beside them. But with stress hormones.
First, a part in the brain called the “hypothalamus” gets
your nervous system ready. It also releases a hormone to trigger the next
hormone in the cascade. (Here’s the first pass of the ball.)
Second, when the pituitary gland (also in the brain) gets
that hormone, it releases a different hormone to trigger the next hormones in
the cascade. (Here’s the second pass of the ball.)
Third, when your adrenal glands (on your kidneys) get that
signal, they release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Here’s where
things get interesting.
The fancy name for this connection between the brain’s
hormones and adrenal hormones is called the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal
axis”, or the HPA Axis.
There is more and more research that shows a link between a dysregulation (improperly functioning) of the HPA Axis, and its association with insulin resistance and abdominal obesity.
And, ideally, you want to minimize insulin resistance and abdominal obesity, right?
The stress hormone cortisol affects many things in our bodies. Things like digestion and gut health, inflammation. hunger hormones, insulin release and sensitivity, mood, and sleep. All of can also affect your weight.
Stress Hormones and Weight Gain
We now see that there are many, many effects that stress
hormones, mainly cortisol, have on your body. Including the link that people
with abdominal obesity tend to have higher cortisol levels.
Let’s dive into each one and see how stress hormones keep
you from your weight loss goals.
1 – Poor Digestion and Gut Health
As mentioned already, being in a state of stress puts
digestion on the back burner. This is because your body is ready to “fight or
flee,” rather than “rest and digest.”
One of the most obvious impacts stress has on digestion is
“transit time.” You may notice that stress can either quickly speed up how fast
your food moves through you (diarrhea). Or, it may slow it down quite a bit
(constipation). Neither one of these is ideal.
So, even if you’re eating a variety of nutrient-dense whole
foods, you may become nutrient deficient! And proper nutrition is needed at the
best of times, let alone when you’re stressed and trying to lose weight.
New research is also showing the impact that stress has on our friendly gut microbes. We’re just beginning to understand the influence that our gut microbes have on all aspects of health, including weight loss.
Stress is also linked with tiny holes or “leaks” in your
digestive tract. This means that incompletely digested food particles can get
into your body through these leaks. This can cause a ton of inflammation.
Which leads us to the second major way stress keeps you from
your weight loss goals.
2 – Inflammation and immune system dysregulation
Guess where 80% of your immune system is located?
In your gut – right around your digestive tract!
So, you can imagine if chronic stress is messing with your
digestion, it’s going to also mess with your immune system.
Decades of research show how inflammation is part of many chronic diseases. When you’re chronically stressed, this affects your immune system which is supposed to control inflammation.
Chronic stress can make your immune system either hyper-vigilant or less responsive. And both of these can keep you from reaching your weight loss goals.
If your immune system is hyper-vigilant, you can develop high inflammatory levels.
If your immune system is less-responsive, it slows healing, allows your body to get sick more often, and stay sick longer.
For optimal health, and the ability to lose weight, you want your immune system to work properly (not too fast or too slow).
3 – Cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating”
When you’re stressed do you reach for celery? Or do you
prefer fatty or sugary snacks?
Many people tend to eat more food, particularly comfort
food. Things that tend to be fatty and sugary. And there is science to back
Scientists are now looking at interactions between stress
hormones and the “hunger” and “fullness” hormones.
I don’t even have to tell you how this is going to keep you
from your weight loss goals.
4 – Insulin sensitivity
Stress also increases your blood sugar, to make sure that your muscles have the fuel (sugar) they need to “fight” or “flee.” And if your muscles are not working and using up that excess blood sugar, your body secretes insulin to re-absorb that sugar into your cells.
This increase in both cortisol and insulin promotes both insulin resistance and fat storage. Especially around the middle.
5 – Mood-busting and demotivating
Stress can not only bring down your mood, but that can also
be terribly demotivating. When you’re feeling stressed, you may start feeling
moody. You may also have less motivation to do the healthy weight loss
activities that you really want to do.
If you’re down in the dumps and not motivated to prepare
healthy meals or snacks, or get some exercise, then you’re less likely to do
And we all know how important they are for weight loss.
6 – Stress negatively affects quality of sleep
Cortisol is part of your natural sleep-wake cycle. Under
normal (non-stressed) conditions, cortisol levels would increase before waking,
and slowly drop during the day.
And this makes sense, because we know that it helps increase
mental clarity as well as blood sugar to fuel your muscles. And we need mental
clarity and to move our muscles, especially when we are awake.
But we also need this effect to “wear off” by the end of the
day so we can start getting tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s
sleep. In other words, in the evenings, we want to start more resting and
And getting enough sleep is probably a more common reason
why people don’t reach weight loss goals than most people think. Science is
showing the links between not getting enough quality sleep and obesity.
Now that we’ve gone through six major reasons how stress
hormones keep you from your weight loss goals, let’s talk about what the heck
you can do about it.
Stress Reducing Tips
I’d love to help you manage your stress better so that you
can meet your weight loss goals.
There are really two main strategies to go about reducing
First off, you can reduce the amount of stress put on you by
re-balancing some demands. Try:
- Saying “no”;
- Getting more support;
- Delegating to someone else;
- Re-negotiating deadlines that seem unreasonable;
- When working, focus on just one thing at a time
Secondly, since you can’t (and maybe don’t want to)
completely remove stress from you life, you want to learn to deal with it
better. You can improve your personal stress tolerance by trying to:
- Have some fun and laugh;
- Make time for people (and pets) you love;
- Get more, better-quality sleep;
- Be mindful and live more “in the moment”;
- Have one or two cups of green tea (which has
been shown to lower stress levels);
- Do light exercise most days per week (e.g. yoga,
swimming, or tai chi);
- Go for a walk outside;
- Spend more time in nature;
- Eat a nutrient-rich diet;
- Meditate or deep breathing;
- Relax every evening (e.g. have a bath or read a
- Listen to soothing music;
- Do a “brain dump” every night before bed where
you just make notes of things you’re keeping track of in your head so you can
- Treat yourself to a massage, nice meal, or
Stress has six major effects that can keep you from your weight loss goals. It affects digestion and gut health, inflammation and the immune system.
Stress can cause cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating.” It can promote fat storage around the waist with its effect on insulin sensitivity.
And stress can be mood-busting and demotivating, not to mention how it worsens sleep.
All of these effects can keep you from your weight loss goals.
Definitely try some of the many ways to deal with stress, but also try to reduce some of the causes of stress in your life.
Your mind and body will thank you!