Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

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.
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Member Comments

Excellent article, thank you Report
Another Sparker was so stressed to have a plateau for an entire month following weight loss surgery. She was convinced that the surgery had all been for nothing. After reading this article can you guess what was hindering her? Yup...stress. Very valuable article! Thank you for sharing! Report
Good article to read. good points Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
Good article. Report
Under "Ease your stress without Supplements", the 3rd sentence states 'Exercise, meditation and yoga can then be used to cope with stress that you can’t eliminate.'

Prayer was left out; which has been shown to help in coping with and/or eliminating stress.
It seems so easy when you read it in writing but it is anything but easy for us emotional eaters of which I am one. I can make all the lists I want about other ways to handle my stress other then eating but I still often lack the will power to use those methods instead of the easier step of eating something. I just need to develop the will power to say no to food. Report
Those of us who've been around the block more than once absolutely realize that stress causes weight gain; stress is also the cause of much, much more. Why else is there so much stress (hmmm) placed on the importance of relaxation.
Fortunately, for many people stress isn't the only cause of weight gain, and for those people, I think their weight-loss solutions might be fairly simple. For we who use food to relieve stress, the solutions are never simple.
The article was simple, to the point, and a confirmation that finding a better form of stress-relief is key. Knowledge is power, constant reminders are necessary,
Thank you for posting this article. Report
I am sure that long term stress does contribute to people putting weight on. It causes the fight or flight response which mobilises glucose release. Insulin resistance is recognised as being more prevalent in people who are overweight and makes weight loss more difficult. Report
When I'm stressed, I can't sleep. When I can't sleep, I feel more tired . I used to eat when I'm stressed. I started to do some meditation but it has not worked for me, yet. I started taking my dog for short walks and it has helped lessen my stress level . My dog is losing weight... But I am stuck. Report
With my body, I have found mild stress causes me to gain because I nervously pick at food, but extreme stress makes me lose weight because I just can't eat. The latter has happened only twice in my 76 tears. Report
This article did little to address the confusion about the stress response of higher cortisol levels and its contribution to inflammatory effects of abdominal adipose tissue, poor glucose regulation and weight gain. Report
....if stress from family and boyfriend cause you a 20 pound weight loss I pray that you make some adjustments in those relationships. That is far from healthy and you deserve better. Report
Part of this article could be worded more clearly. Studies may not have shown that herbal supplements are effective, but studies certainly have shown that cortisol levels influence weight & sleep patterns. Report
Comments like "stay away from the refrigerator" show a lack of knowledge and understanding of real health problems. I don't gain weight when I'm stressed but I certainly do whenever I have to take a course of prednisone which is related to cortisol; last time it was 30 pounds in three months and it took me two years to get rid of the weight. Fortunately my chronic illness is currently well controlled on other medication, but I would be very careful about judging others when I know nothing about their personal circumstances. Report


About The Author

The American Institute for Cancer Research
The American Institute for Cancer Research
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is a charity that has contributed more than $70 million for research on diet and cancer. AICR educates Americans how to make dietary changes to lower their cancer risk.