The Connection Between Stress And Weight Gain Explained

Most people know about the 'freshman 15,' the weight college freshmen tend to gain after leaving home the first time. This is usually chalked up to students choosing their meals without parental supervision. Though this may be true for those who choose junk food over well-balanced meals, what about students who eat healthy and still gain weight? Or the weight some people seem to gain when they lose their job, move to a new area, or go through a crisis on a national (or global) scale?

It turns out that weight gained during times of upheaval might have more to do with chronic stress than anything else. Stress causes our bodies to release a hormone called cortisol. While cortisol is useful when we're in "fight or flight" situations, it has terrible side effects on people who are constantly under stress (via The Mayo Clinic).

A 2016 study in Australia found that cortisol is an appetite stimulant, which is part of why stress lands most people in front of their favorite comfort foods. To make matters worse, a 2015 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that calories consumed during times of high cortisol levels were more likely to be stored as fat around a person's midsection.

The Insulin Factor

Cortisol isn't the only stress-related hormone that causes weight gain, however. At the same time our bodies increase cortisol production, they decrease insulin production according to the University of California San Francisco. They do this so that there is more sugar available in the bloodstream for us to use as energy.

When stress affects this process, it's bad news for our waistlines. Suppressed insulin production means there's more sugar in our bloodstreams than usual. When you add comfort food on top of that, the sugar level rises even higher. This, as the CDC explains, is where the system falls apart.

Stress might suppress our insulin production, but our bodies overcome that when our blood sugar gets too high. At that point the pancreas cranks up the insulin production and floods the system. This forces the body to cram as much sugar as possible into its cells, creating fat. Over time, the cells stop responding to natural insulin, leading to insulin resistance and weight gain.

All of this might sound impossible to overcome. Fighting against your own body's natural response isn't exactly something covered with basic weight loss advice. But there is hope. Some people find that meditation helps them overcome their stress response. Others prefer picking up a hobby. It's all about what works best for you to get your stress levels back in balance.