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Can Stress Make You Fat?

Stress 101 Article   (3,687 Views 2 Replies 1,235 Words)

Carol Ebert is a MSN, RN and works as a Certified Wellness Practitioner.

4 Followers; 52 Articles; 19,724 Visitors; 130 Posts


I don’t know if you are like me when it comes to weight loss, but there are times that I “stress about weight”. I now know that is the worst thing I can do. It is a surefire way to prevent any progress you want to make because stress can make you fat!

Can Stress Make You Fat?

Let's begin with the basics to get a handle on this. As you know there are two kinds of stress.

Short term like long lines and bad traffic. This is where your fight or flight response kicks in and hormones are released.

  • Adrenal glands secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Fat and carbohydrates in your system are broken down faster
  • Your metabolism changes to fuel this heightened state to be ready to fight or run away.

Once the threat is eliminated your body settles down and you relax (hopefully).

The other kind of stress is long term when the big or even little things in life keep piling up over and over and your body stays in that heightened state without settling down. You are in an ongoing battle against stressors that are repetitive, continuous and feel insurmountable - like debt or facing a job you hate every day. At this point, your stressors may not only be real, but you may just perceive them as a risk when they aren't after all - like worrying about something that could happen even tho it hasn't happened and may not even happen. With long-term stress there is also a hormone release.

  • Adrenal glands secrete CORTISOL, your primary stress hormone
  • Elevated levels remain for prolonged periods of time
  • Your body adjusts to these levels and establishes a baseline of tolerance while the secretions of cortisol continue to increase. Seems like the signs of dependence and addiction, doesn't it? When stress becomes so normal to you that you don't even know you're stressed, you think you are doing OK. (This happened to me at one point and until I learned stress management techniques, I had no idea my body was in a stressed state!)

And now the stage is set for the long-term effects of high levels of cortisol on your weight. Here are some considerations.

Carb and Sugar Cravings

If high levels remain, cortisol secretions continue to increase which in turn:

  • Stimulates appetite
  • Stimulates a rise in insulin
  • Causes blood sugar to drop
  • Creates cravings for high sugar foods

Comfort Foods

If you have stress without relief - you may reach for "comfort foods"

  • They provide lots of energy in the form of refined sugar
  • They are rich in fat
  • They calm the brain
  • Your body's response positively reinforces frequent consumption of comfort foods when you are under stress and are hungry

Stress and Middle Fat

  • CORTISOL activates LPL (lipoprotein lipase)
  • LPL is an enzyme that deposits and stores fat
  • Study results
  • Women's study: High cortisol levels from long-term stress can lead to greater central fat accumulation
  • Mouse study: Mice not on a high-fat diet under prolonged stress had gut microbiome changes that resembled mice eating a high-fat diet

Sleep Deprivation

When you are sleep deprived your body is stressed and releases even more hormones that affect your weight. Being awake in the night increases the odds that you will engage in late night snacking and have cravings for high sugar and carb snacks. Because you aren't "thinking straight" you might have decreased portion control so you eat bigger portions.

Cortisol increases -fat storage hormone to prepare you for possible emergency (ex: famine)

Gherlin increases -hormone that stimulates appetite

Leptin decreases -hormone that suppresses appetite

Insulin increases -hormone that stores fat when it can't transport all the excess sugar to the cells for energy

So how do we tamp down this physiological response?

Do you just cope and scrape by during each episode of stress? Or do you manage the situation by planning ahead and building systems of support before stressors become overwhelming? I have tried both and the coping part only lasts so long until you can't manage the pain any longer.

So here are some strategies to help you move forward with your weight loss goals.

Create a Support System

Identify friends or family you can count on and write down their contact info so you can reach out in a hurry. Let's just start with one key person in your life.


Block out alone time on your calendar

One hour block or a few shorter ones where you will be free from distractions and visitors.

List one activity you can use to recharge your batteries


Prioritize your tasks

Make a to-do list and do harder or more challenging ones first. Use the "easier" tasks which take less time as a reward for completing the big stuff first. Check off each when done to create a feeling of accomplishment which helps your body relax.


Make time for Self-Care

This is not a luxury, it is crucial for health!

  1. Eat balanced, low-glycemic meals and snacks to keep your blood sugar in balance so it doesn't set off the cortisol response - bring healthy food to work from home so you can control what you eat
  2. Get 7-8 hours of restful sleep to prevent sleep deprivation which sets off that cascade of hormones - wind down in the evening, turn off electronics, ease into a sleep mode, don't eat or exercise right before bed
  3. Exercise daily - to lower cortisol levels and boost endorphins. Choose an activity you enjoy, put it on your calendar, rejoice that exercise is a 2-for-1 deal: helps with weight management AND stress management.
  4. Engage in relaxation techniques - select those you like: meditation, visualization, Tai Chi, Chi Machine, EFT Tapping, progressive relaxation; the choices out there are endless it seems.

So what do you think? Does getting a handle on stress become THE missing link for weight loss? What are your thoughts?


Bridgewater LC, et al. Gender-based differences in host behavior and gut microbiota composition in response to high-fat diet and stress in a mouse model. Nature Scientific Reports. 2017; 7(1):10776.

Epel ES, et al. Stress and body shape: Stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2000;(62):623-32.

Maglione-Garves, CA et al. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. ACSM'S Health & Fitness Journal. 2005; 9(5):20-23.

Montes M and Kravitz L. Unraveling the Stress-Eating-Obesity Knot: Exercise can significantly mitigate the effects of stress and weight gain. IDEA Fitness Journal. 2011; 8(2):44-50.

Exercise for Stress and Anxiety | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA


Stress might be just as unhealthy as junk food to digestive system: Study with mice shows stress causes digestive microorganisms to behave similar to how they act with high-fat diet -- ScienceDaily


Carol Ebert RN, BSN, MA, CHES, Certified Wellness Practitioner, Certified Mindful Coach, Sanoviv Nutrition Advisor

4 Followers; 52 Articles; 19,724 Visitors; 130 Posts

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1 Follower; 13,283 Visitors; 1,469 Posts

Well done!

One of the best articles on this site.

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2,587 Visitors; 475 Posts

I love this article and the focus on self-care.

Often, when we are slammed with obligations, we seem to forget that we are our own biggest obligation and deserving of some time too.

I try to get at least one hour a day to indulge; whether it's a bubble bath, video gaming, crochet, or the gym - I make sure that I get that hour to wind down.

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