Does stress affect weight?
A dietitian explains the link between stress and weight gain or loss, including the impact on our hormones and appetite, plus top tips to manage stress levels
Everyone responds to stressful situations in different ways – some people lose their appetite completely, while others crave particular foods or just feel much hungrier than usual. These seemingly simple reactions are caused by a complex set of processes and interactions within the body. We asked dietitian Emer Delaney to explain how stress impacts our hormones, appetite, blood sugar levels and fat accumulation, as well as giving us tips for staying healthy during stressful times.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural response to the challenges and perceived threats we face in our day to day lives. We all experience stress to some degree.
There are many factors that may trigger stress, these include external pressures such as work or family responsibilities, and internal influences including what we eat and how our digestive, immune and nervous systems are working. If you're feeling overwhelmed, depressed or struggling to cope, help is available – visit the NHS website or speak to your GP.
How does stress affect our hormones?
Stress, whether short or long term, may impact your hormones in a variety of ways. During periods of stress, the body triggers the hypothalamus (a small area at the base of the brain) which sends signals to the adrenal glands (which sit on the top of the kidneys) and to the pituitary glands (located in the brain behind the nose). This process releases specific stress hormones including adrenaline, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol.
What do stress hormones do?
- Adrenaline is designed to prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response – it does this by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and blood glucose levels. It also moves blood from non-essential organs such as the kidneys and skin, to the muscles and brain.
- CRH reduces appetite and if this continues long-term, the body releases cortisol.
- Cortisol affects a variety of processes in the body including regulating blood sugar levels and your metabolism.
How does stress affect my appetite?
The impact of stress on your appetite will vary from person to person and depends on whether the stressful situation is short-lived or long-term.
Generally speaking, appetite is reduced in the early stages of stress, because adrenaline causes a breakdown of glycogen in the liver and fat from adipose tissue. This means your body has adequate fuel for the heart and muscles to work – which is useful in a 'fight or flight' situation. This results in a decreased appetite as blood is directed away from the digestive system. However, if the stress response is ongoing (such as in cases of long-term daily stress), cortisol levels increase and stimulate your appetite, over time this may lead to weight gain.
How does stress affect blood sugar levels?
Stress may cause higher blood sugar levels as a direct result of an increased production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
The reason cortisol influences the levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood is because it signals the body to break down protein stores in the liver. This process (called gluconeogenesis) produces glucose for the body and, over time, may result in persistent high blood glucose levels. In turn, this puts added pressure on the pancreas to regulate blood glucose levels by producing more of the blood sugar managing hormone, insulin. Eventually, the body may become resistant to insulin – a factor which is linked with type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes and pre-diabetes.
For more information, check out the NHS website to learn more about hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) and refer to your GP if you are concerned about your blood sugar levels.
How does stress affect fat storage?
A complex set of interactions that occur in the body between three different organs – the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). When this is activated by stress, it has been shown to play an important role in body fat accumulation.
On activation the HPA triggers an increase in cortisol production which, in turn, increases appetite and reduces the body’s ability to break down food. If a lot of our weight is carried in the upper body and as abdominal adipose tissue (fat) has a large number of cells, a high blood flow and more receptors for cortisol to attach to, then cortisol may have a greater impact on our metabolism.
What are some tips to manage stress levels?
1. Be as active as you can
You don’t need to be a member of a gym or leisure centre to exercise – brisk walking outside can be a great option to introduce into your daily life. It helps release endorphins, loosen muscles and relax your mind.
2. Try meditation
Meditation can be a useful way to relax and calm yourself during times of stress. It doesn’t need to be for long periods; just taking a few minutes out of the day to switch off is enough to be beneficial. Practising mindfulness may have a similar effect – find out how to eat mindfully.
3. Go decaf
If you are sensitive to caffeine, switching to decaffeinated drinks or herbal teas may help you feel calmer and less jittery. Ingredients such as camomile and lavender are often said to promote relaxation – try a few different flavours to find one you really enjoy.
4. Pay attention to your diet
Make sure you’re eating regular, nourishing meals and aim for a balanced diet. Some people find cooking helps them 'switch off' after a busy day, but others may find it less appealing. If this is the case, try batch cooking at weekends and stock up the freezer with healthy, home-cooked meals that just need reheating.
Try our favourite healthy batch cooking recipes.
5. Aim for five
Getting your five-a-day shouldn’t be a challenge – tinned or frozen fruit and vegetables are as healthy as fresh, so making a simple swap to these budget-friendly options may be all that is needed. Plus, there’s the added bonus that they won’t go off in the fridge if you don’t feel like cooking.
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Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
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