Stress and Weight Loss

Stress and Weight Loss

When we talk about stress and its effect on our weight loss goals we are talking about acute (high) stress. Scientists explain that acute psychological stress is caused by our internal response and ability to cope with past or future events, but not necessarily the events themselves. Thus what stresses one person will differ vary from what stresses another. It is the perception, so one person might see something as a challenge where another may see it as a threat.

The implications of stress on the body are numerous:

  • Increased cortisol levels
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Decreased sleep
  • High blood pressure

At least two of these implications will have a direct effect on our weight loss goals.

  • Increased Cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland, too much Cortisol in the body can lead to weight gain (particularly round the abdomen and face). This happens for three reasons, firstly Cortisol (best known as a stress hormone), is produced in the body in times where continued acute stress occurs.

Cortisol activates enzymes to store fat. In times of prolonged stress your body believes that it is best to store more fat around the body in case of times of famine (yes this really does happen).Central fat cells are deep abdominal visceral cells, which are a fast energy source in times of stress. However they also tend to have 4 times more cortisol receptors than the fat cells found underneath the skin. Consequently at times of acute stress where Cortisol is elevated the Cortisol is drawn to the central fat cells and thus draws more fat to be stored centrally.

Secondly and more importantly raised cortisol levels also increases insulin levels, causing blood sugar levels to drop and for your sugar cravings to kick in. Once your sugar cravings kick in you are more likely at risk to jump for the high-fat or high-sugar foods.

Scientists found that many humans have been self-medicating when faced with chronic stress by eating so called comfort foods.

Long term exposure to this pattern of stress and then comfort eating dampens the bodies stress response. Research showed that women who had stressful jobs and carried more abdominal fat tended to have reduced cortisol secretion in response to acute stress, indicating adrenal exhaustion.

So more stress= more cortisol=more central fat storage (apple shape)- over time more central fat storage= more exposure to cortisol= body reduces cortisol secretion=  adrenal fatigue and more fat storage… yes bit confusing but I think we got there.

Thirdly Cortisol is also a catabolic hormone and too much in the body can also lead to loss of muscle tissue further slowing down your metabolism and helping you to gain fat.


  • Sleep deprivation.

Chronically high cortisol levels disturb sleep patterns. Not only does sleep deprivation affect tiredness and immunity, but it also impairs the way your body handles food, creating impaired glucose intolerance. This can result in insulin resistance and increased likelihood of obesity.

A lack of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep (also known as deep sleep) can obstruct surges of growth hormone in the body, resulting in increased fat storage and reduced muscle mass.

The emotional part of the brain (amygdala) is a lot more active when sleep deprived. We have already discussed that emotions or at least negative ones often turn people to look for comfort foods. If the brain is more emotionally active then you are more likely to cheat on your diet.

Sleep deprivation also quite often results in a feeling of lethargy, resulting in increased food consumption to boost energy. Sleep deprivation also causes a lowering of body temperature, this can also cause an increase in food intake in order to warm up (appetite tends to increase when you feel cold) . Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and calorie consumption, one study found that individuals who are sleep deprived may eat more than 500 additional calories a day, to help give them energy.

Others rationalise that if they are awake longer their body needs more calories to stay awake. This rationality is wrong, your BMR (basal metabolic rate) accounts for 24 hours not 12 so your if your BMR is 1200kcal this doesn’t change if you are awake for longer.

The hormone ghrelin is influenced in large parts by sleep patterns. (ghrelin is the hunger hormone produced and released mainly in the stomach). Sleep deprivation can cause rises in ghrelin within the body which will cause a direct rise in hunger and thus you are more likely to over consume food.


What can I do to help all this?

Practicing mindfulness training/ meditation/ stress release exercises, can help improve reduce psychological distress and therefore improve stress eating, and decrease the cortisol awakening response. Overt time this will also lead to central fat loss.

Unsurprisingly those who partake in physical exercise regularly experience less psychological anxiety and negative emotions and also recover quicker from times of acute stress. Researcher Dallman is quoted as saying “literally running away from stress is a good idea”.

7-8 hours of sleep each night helps to reduce fatigue in the body, provide growth hormone to help burn fat and reduce cortisol levels in the body.

How to help your sleep 1. Completely dark room will help increase melatonin production in the body. 2. Try to sleep 2-3 hours after dinner when cortisol levels typically diminish 3. Avoid Stimulants up to 6 hours before bed 4. Switch of all mobile signals and wifi in your bedroom and avoid having any technological devices near your bed

Listening to your favourite music during the day is believed to help reduce your cortisol levels by as much as 25% when listened to for more than 15 minutes each day.. (and it can be anything not just slow classical music… for me Ed Sheeran works wonders..)

Keeping a journal.. now whilst this is not for everyone it is a great tool in helping to identify the emotions behind overeating. Understanding the reasons behind your behaviour is an important step in gaining better self-control.




1 thought on “Stress and Weight Loss”

  1. To prevent weight gain during stress and reduce the risk of obesity, get a handle on your stress. When you feel less stressed and more in control of your life, you may find it easier to stick to healthy eating and exercise habits.

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