How Does Stress Affect Weight Loss?

What's the association between stress and weight loss? Avoiding stress is as important as diet and exercise to lose weight.

How Does Stress Affect Weight Loss? photo

Stress and weight loss

Maintaining the ideal weight isn’t all about diet and exercise. Many other lifestyle factors can impact our metabolism and subsequently our weight. For some people, psychological stress leads to under-eating and loss of weight. While this is often a temporary situation, remember that any unplanned weight loss should be checked out by a doctor in case it’s a sign of an underlying medical condition. In this article, we examine the reasons why, for many people, stress interferes with their weight-loss efforts and can even lead to weight gain.

Why does stress make weight loss hard?

The recent pandemic has led to weight gain for a large number of people. This phenomenon may be due only in part to restricted activities and increased home baking. Unfortunately, many people have experienced an incredible amount of psychological stress from health anxiety, social isolation and financial concerns, on top of any pre-existing life stresses.

When we feel stressed, many of us turn to food for comfort, but there are other mechanisms at play that work against our best weight-loss intentions. Our adrenal system is designed to kick in when we are under threat, releasing the hormones adrenalin and cortisol in order to get us moving out of the way of danger. We experience a quick release of glucose into the blood so that we can fuel our muscles if we need to run or fight.

This is an effective survival adaptation passed to us by our ancestors who survived all kinds of animal, human or environmental attacks in the past. Today, our situation is quite different. True threats are few, but our survival system can be repeatedly triggered by perceived threats – a worrying news report or a difficult social situation may elicit the same adrenalin and cortisol response as the sudden appearance of a dangerous animal.

Such perceived threats would not be a problem if they were infrequent and short-lived. It is the fact that they are frequent or prolonged, or both, that starts to have negative effects on our health, including our metabolic health.

Weight loss can be impeded because:

  • The extra glucose generated in the liver and released into the bloodstream is not usually needed to fight or run away from today’s stressful events so it can end up being stored in our fat deposits
  • When the bloodstream has a plentiful supply of glucose, excess body fat cannot be burnt for fuel
  • Frequent or prolonged elevation of blood glucose levels has an inflammatory effect that can hinder weight loss
  • The correct functioning of the adrenal system may suffer from chronic, repeated activation and glucose may be released at inappropriate times

While it’s not always easy to avoid stress, it is important to find ways to attenuate it. For example:

  • Look for relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises
  • Consider counselling to help you cope with current or past traumatic events
  • Change your routine or your sleeping environment to make your sleep as restful as possible
  • Reduce stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol as these also trigger the adrenal system.
Stress comes in all shapes and sizes

Psychological stress is not the only kind of stress. Take a look at this list of physical issues that can place stress on the body and thereby interfere with healthy function and weight management:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Ultra-processed foods
  • Frequent sugary foods
  • Under-eating
  • Over-eating
  • Rushed eating
  • Lack of nutrients
  • Over-exercising
  • Lack of movement
  • Lack of fresh air
  • Lack of sunshine
  • Too much artificial light
  • Toxins from smoking, pollution and household or workplace chemicals
  • No contact with nature

This list can look overwhelming, but knowledge is power. Take small steps at a time and consider how could you reduce your exposure to just one of these stressors.

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Fruehwald-Schultes, B., et al., 2001. Hyperinsulinemia causes activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis in humans. International Journal of Obesity, 25(S1), pp.S38–S40.

Guilliams, T.G., 2015. The Role of Stress and the HPA Axis in Chronic Disease Management (2015) « Point Institute. Point Institute.

Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S. and Andersen, M.L., 2015. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep science (Sao Paulo, Brazil), 8(3), pp.143–52.

Joseph, J.J. and Golden, S.H., 2017. Cortisol dysregulation: the bidirectional link between stress, depression, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1391(1), pp.20–34.