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Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

What the Research Really Shows
  -- By The American Institute of Cancer Research

Some advertisements claim that hormonal changes from high stress lead to weight gain. These ads offer products that will supposedly normalize your hormones, thus decreasing your waist size. Should you use these products?

Research does support some link between stress and weight. Stress often causes people to drop good eating and exercise habits that helped them lose weight.

When people are stressed they can also have trouble falling asleep. Studies show that a lack of sleep leads to lower levels of the hormone leptin, which can cause an increased appetite. Tired people often turn to food, too, to replenish their energy.

The Controversy about Cortisol
The hormone most often mentioned in connection with stress is cortisol. When we feel threatened or stressed, cortisol levels rise in a "fight or flight" reaction, making more fuel available to the body. Yet in today’s world we may never burn all the energy released by this hormone because stress is largely emotional and doesn’t require a physical response.

Cortisol may affect where body fat is stored. In one study, people whose cortisol levels jumped the most in response to stress tended to have proportionally more waistline fat—even if they were at a healthy weight. A greater proportion of fat at the waist was related to increased levels of ongoing stress related to work or finances, or lower levels of self-esteem. Waistline fat that gives people an apple shape poses the greatest health risks.

Although ads for some herbal products claim to lower cortisol levels and bring rapid weight loss, no evidence from respected research studies exists to support these claims. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has filed a legal complaint against marketers of two herbal supplements. They have agreed to stop making such claims, but the products remain on the market.

Ease Your Stress without Supplements
To control stress and its influence on your weight, first try to remove the sources of stress in your life. Scale back on your commitments, learn better time management, or become more assertive. Exercise, meditation and yoga can then be used to cope with stress that you can’t eliminate.

Another way to counteract stress is to change your psychological responses. For example, if you tend to overeat when stressed, develop a list of nonfood ways to handle the pressure. Learning to wait out the urge to eat—usually just 10 to 15 minutes—can be a simple psychological change that makes a significant difference.

For a sensible plan that tells you what to eat and how much to exercise to reach and keep a healthy weight, read the brochure A Healthy Weight for Life. Call AICR at 1-800-843-8114, ext. 111, to order your free copy.