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How Stress-Induced Weight Gain Can Increase the Risk of Chronic Disease, and What You Can Do to Prevent It.

What You Need To Know About Stress and Weight Gain

How Stress-Induced Weight Gain Can Increase the Risk of Chronic Disease, and What You Can Do to Prevent It.

It goes without saying that this is a very stressful time in our world.  We are all experiencing stress.  As individuals, we experience different levels of stress and have different ways of managing it.  Regardless of how we are coping individually, we are experiencing this pandemic together.  We owe it to ourselves, our families, and our communities, to take care of ourselves and others.  What is also clearly evident about this pandemic is that taking care of our mental and physical health is now more important than ever.

How stress causes us to gain weight and increases our risk of chronic disease:

Hormones are part of the stress and weight gain process.

Stress causes us to gain weight by affecting our hormones which cause the weight gain.  When we experience stress, our cortisol levels increase which can cause us to gain excess weight, which in turn puts us at an increased risk of developing chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers.  These conditions also put us at an increased risk of developing more serious symptoms from the Covid19 virus.  Chronic stress can cause weight gain, insulin resistance and chronic diseases.  When your brain detects any type of threat it releases chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol.  Your brain does this to prepare your body to defend against the threat.  In the short term this system is helpful for survival.  However, when the stress response remains activated, elevated levels of cortisol increases our hunger, elevates our blood sugar, causes insulin resistance, slows our metabolism, and causes us to increase fat storage, all of which lead to unwanted weight gain.  Chronic stress causes our bodies to store increased amounts of visceral fat (deep fat).  This type of fat releases inflammatory chemicals into our circulation leading to systemic inflammation which puts us at an increased risk of developing chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease, which put us at risk for serious complications from infections like the Covid19 virus..

Stress also causes weight gain by triggering anxiety.  Anxiety frequently leads to increased food intake and weight gain.  Emotional eating is a common way that many people try to treat their anxiety.  When we are stressed or anxious, we also tend to crave unhealthy “comfort foods.”  These cravings have both psychological and physiological causes.  Cortisol is thought to disrupt our reward system in the brain and cause us to crave fat and sugar.  Emotional eating, cravings, and self-medicating with food all lead to increased food intake, weight gain, and increased risk of chronic diseases.

Stress can also cause weight gain by interfering with our ability to fall and/or stay asleep.  When we do not get enough sleep our hunger hormone (Leptin) is elevated, which causes us to eat more, and our “I’m full” hormone (Ghrelin) is decreased, which causes us to not feel full, leading to increase food intake.  In addition, our reward system is sensitized giving us twice the pleasure when we eat processed foods containing high amounts of sugar and fat.  This causes us to crave and eat more of these types of unhealthy foods.  When we are tired, we also have less motivation and reduced impulse control.  We are much less likely to eat healthy and exercise.  So, stress-induced lack of sleep can also cause you to gain weight.  The ideal amount of sleep recommended to prevent this type of weight gain is 7.5 to 8 hours a night.

Currently 70% of American adults are overweight or obese. 40% of us are obese.  Diabesity (obesity and type 2 Diabetes) has become an epidemic.  Reducing stress along with improving diet and exercise is an important part of preventing and reversing this epidemic.

There are a lot of things that can help reduce stress-induced weight gain:

Aerobic exercise can decrease cortisol and trigger the release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood.  It can also help increase your metabolism.  Strength training can increase your muscle mass which in turn increases your basal metabolic rate (which is the number of calories you burn per day just to maintain your body’s functions).  Recommendations for general health are 30 minutes a day 5 days a week of aerobic exercise and 2 days a week of strength training (provided you do not have any health concerns that prevent such exercise).  Always consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Getting enough sleep will also help reduce stress-induced weight gain.  Regular exercise can help improve your sleep.  Stopping electronics at least one hour before bed can help you fall asleep.  Light from electronics inhibits your natural melatonin (the hormone your body makes to induce sleep).  Taking a warm shower before bed signals to your body that it is time to sleep,  the decrease in temperature after a warm shower signals to your body that it is time for bed.  Still can’t sleep?  Try listening to a meditation app, like Calm.  Focused breathing can help quiet your thoughts so you can get to sleep.  Try focusing on your breath.  Think of a word when you inhale and a word when you exhale.  This takes practice but works well to calm your mind and help you fall asleep.  Still can’t sleep?  Magnesium and/or melatonin can be helpful.  However always speak with your doctor before you try any over-the-counter vitamins, supplements, or sleep aids.

Mindful eating programs can also help prevent stress-induced weight gain.  These programs train you in meditation, which helps you cope with stress, and change your consciousness around eating.  Now might be a great time to get a book on mindful eating or to take an online course.

You can also reduce stress-induced weight gain by making sure to regularly do activities that you enjoy.  Do something every day that brings you joy.  Make a list of things you like to do.  When you find the urge to eat when you are not hungry, pick something on your list to do instead.

Activities that can decrease stress during social distancing:

Take a walk in your neighborhood, read a book, take an online course, do an online exercise class, try learning something new, knit, draw, play with your pet, spend time with your “housemates” playing games, do puzzles, plan and cook healthy meals.  Call, text, videochat, or email friends and family.  Look for opportunities to help others.  Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can all help to reduce your stress.  Although you may feel that you don’t have time to relax, taking time to relieve stress helps you to feel refreshed, clears your mind, and improves your mood, so you are less likely to overeat.

To your Health and Happiness.  May you, your family, and your friends remain safe.

Dr. Keller

“Please remember to check in on your strong friend your busy friend, your happy friend…Or your ‘seems to handle everything well’ friend.”—Emily Coxhead (from @peacefulmindpeacefullife)

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