Sydney Hills Counselling Blog

Weight Gain and Stress – How Connected Are They?

Are you feeling stressed? Have you noticed that you’re also gaining weight? You may be wondering, can stress cause weight gain? Many recent studies have indicated that an increase in the stress hormone cortisol can lead us to gain weight, and more annoyingly, it may also prevent us from losing those extra kilos. Stress has been shown to significantly impact our ability to maintain a healthy weight. This can often be attributed to a high level of the stress hormone cortisol, unhelpful stress-related behaviours, or a combination of both of these factors. 

So, what is cortisol and what is its function in our body? Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in our adrenal glands; these glands sit just above our kidneys and are controlled by our pituitary gland. Our cortisol levels commonly peak in the morning and fall steadily as the day wears on. Cortisol is released in response to processes such as waking in the morning and regulating our metabolism and immune response. It helps to control our body’s blood sugar levels, acts as an anti-inflammatory, controls the balance of salt and water in our body which keeps our blood pressure steady, and also helps in the early stages of pregnancy in the development of the fetus

When we experience stress, our adrenal glands release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and as a result, glucose is released into our bloodstream. Thousands of years ago, when we were ‘prey’ to wild animals and living in caves, cortisol was essential in preparing us to escape quickly from a ‘risky’ situation or else be eaten for a predator’s dinner. Of course, these days, there’s almost zero chance of us becoming a predator’s dinner, however, we do face different types of modern stressors in our daily lives. The recent pandemic was an incredibly stressful time for many people and the same biological response that prepared us for ‘fight or flight’ thousands of years ago, became activated by situations such as losing one’s job, facing the possibility of eviction from a rental property, not being able to meet mortgage repayments and anxiety around the uncertainty of what life will be like when all the current restrictions are lifted. Today, the ongoing rise in interest rates, increased cost of living pressures, and lack of affordable housing have also added to the everyday stressors individuals are experiencing. Some people may also experience weight gain from increased anxiety levels. Here is an article that explains how the causes of anxiety and stress are usually different.

Stress has been shown to release an excess of cortisol in our bodies, and although we need some cortisol to maintain healthy bodily functions, too much cortisol can wreak havoc on our health and well-being. Even if we are eating a healthy diet, cortisol has been shown to slow down our metabolism, making it easy to gain weight and difficult to lose it. Furthermore, when the adrenal glands produce high levels of cortisol it can lead to adrenal fatigue, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, disrupted sleep, mood swings, chronic fatigue, lower libido and contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes. 

So what can we do to reduce our cortisol levels? 

Prioritise Exercise: A vital factor of stress reduction and weight management is incorporating and maintaining a regular and consistent exercise routine. Be aware though that super-high intensity exercise can cause already elevated cortisol levels to remain high, especially if you tend to exercise at the end of the day, exercise for hours on end or at a very high intensity. Some forms of exercise, such as yoga and Pilates have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. A recent study found that even a single session of Hatha Yoga resulted in participants being better able to handle stress. Other forms of moderate-intensity exercise such as slow jogging and swimming are all good examples of cortisol-friendly workouts. 

Practice good sleep hygiene: Elevated cortisol levels lead to poor-quality sleep, inconsistent sleep schedules, and sleep disturbances. Keeping your bedroom at a comfortable temperature, reducing blue light exposure in the evening, reducing caffeine intake during the day, going to bed and going to sleep at consistent times, and waking at a regular time has also been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels. 

Eat a healthy diet: Avoiding processed foods that have been sneakily laced with hidden additives and sugars can go a long way toward reducing cortisol levels in our bodies. Reducing the consumption of white bread, pastries, cakes, lollies, and soft drinks is a good place to start; opt instead for a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and lean protein. 

Avoid stress eating: Keeping a regular eating schedule can go a long way toward reducing impulsive snacking and overeating. Stress-eating contributes significantly to increasing our cortisol levels and prevents us from getting too hungry and overeating. Developing an eating ‘routine’ where you eat a meal or snack every 3-4 hours can help avoid stress eating. 

Limit your alcohol intake: Many people use alcohol to help them relax, however, are you aware that alcohol is actually a depressant? While consuming alcohol may help to relax us, it can disrupt our sleep and make us feel listless and/or hungover the next morning. The recommended alcohol limits are two standard drinks per day (2 x 100 ml glasses of red wine, 2 x 285 ml middys of full-strength beer, or 2 x 30 ml Spirits).

Drink water: Drinking enough water every day can help us to better regulate cortisol levels. If we become dehydrated, this can act as a stressor in our bodies, which in turn can increase cortisol levels.  

Include stress-reducing strategies into your daily routine: Mindfulness, meditation, listening to music, drawing, or going for a walk are all examples of stress-reducing activities you can incorporate into your daily routine. As your stress levels reduce, so will your cortisol levels, helping you to reduce and manage your weight. There are also some helpful suggestions here:

Although the above suggestions can help to reduce stress and its associated elevated cortisol levels, they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for seeking help. If your stress levels remain consistently high for long periods, it can lead to significant psychological and physical distress.  If you’re ready to feel calm and in control again, let us help you begin your journey and provide you with helpful tools to overcome your stress. Call us today on (02) 9159 6277 to make an appointment or alternatively, email us at [email protected]. We always return phone calls and reply to emails within 48 hours.

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Benvenutti, M. J., Alves, E., Michael, S., Ding, D., Stamatakis, E., & Edwards, K. M. (2017). A single session of hatha yoga improves stress reactivity and recovery after an acute psychological stress task-A counterbalanced, randomized-crossover trial in healthy individuals. Complementary therapies in medicine35, 120–126.