There are several reasons why an individual gains weight and has difficulty losing it. Usually, my articles on this topic have focused on unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise. However, another very important factor is the stress levels in a person’s life.
There are more and more studies indicating that stress plays a very important role in weight gain, and that in the absence of dealing appropriately with stress, weight loss is difficult, if not impossible.
In one study, researchers immobilized rats. During this period of time, the rats experienced constant stress, since rats generally choose to be active. Without any increase in calorie intake, the rats gained weight (Selye, H., “A syndrome produced by diverse noxious agents,” Nature 1936;138:32). This phenomenon is observed in humans as well.
So, what is stress and how does it physiologically contribute to weight gain? Stress is defined as any real or perceived threat to a person’s body or ego. It can be caused by an acute event, such as almost being involved in an automobile accident, or by just feeling helpless or victimized.
No matter the cause, the body has a programmed way of responding to stress. Stress causes an overproduction of cortisol and other stress hormones. This in turn causes the body to increase blood fats, sugar and insulin. These chemical responses then cause the body to deposit fat around the waistline, which we call visceral fat. Visceral fat then produces more cortisol, which leads to a vicious cycle of more stress and weight gain.
Over-production of cortisol results in a reduction in the amount of leptin the body produces. Leptin is a hormone that signals the brain that you are full. Reduced leptin levels due to stress can contribute to overeating, which is why some people are labeled “stress eaters.”
In one study, women who reported being anxious had higher levels of cortisol, cholesterol, were more likely to be overweight, and had more accumulation of visceral fat than those who reported lower levels of anxiety. (Landen, et al, “Dyslipidemia and high waist-hip ratio in women with self-reported social anxiety,” Psychoneuroendocrinology 2004;29(8):1037-1046)
Stress can also cause adverse changes in other biomarkers – loss of lean muscle mass, increases in triglycerides, blood pressure, oxidative stress and inflammatory response, as well as increases in fatigue and restless sleep patterns.
Whether or not you have a weight problem, a thorough examination of your stress levels is always a good idea. Not just those that are obvious, such as divorce or financial adversity, but also those that I call “stealth stressors” – those insidious issues like scheduling, over-extending yourself, patterns of behavior that include thinking about the next thing you’re going to do instead of enjoying what you are doing right now, spending time with negative people, etc. In other words, all of the little things that chip away at being happy and fulfilled on a daily basis.
Also, examine your reasons for maintaining these patterns. Anything is changeable if you decide you want to do so. Remember, the old saying that if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. If you’re getting adverse health effects, weight gain and high stress, it’s time for a change!