Weight loss and stress – what’s the connection?
For many of us, stress directly affects weight. Whether it causes weight loss or weight gain depends not only on the person, but also on the situation. In some cases, stress can lead to skipped meals and poor food choices. For others, stress can cause them to completely lose their desire to eat. This change is often temporary. Your weight may return to normal after the stressor has passed.
One of the stress hormones suppresses appetite, while the other increases it. You are losing or gaining weight due to various factors; it may also depend on your eating habits when you are at rest.
Stress hormones and work
When you experience a stressful event, the first hormone to turn on is the corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH. Within a few seconds, the CRH rush into your blood will shut off your appetite. So if your car is driving on an icy road or your child falls down in the gym, the last thing you want to do is eat.
However, when the stressor wears off, your body releases glucocorticoids, especially a hormone known as cortisol. This forces your digestion to turn on again so you can replenish the fuel you lost while trying to drive or helping your child.
Stress and weight loss or gain
Most people under stress are prone to hyperphagia, or overeating, and fewer people suffer from hypophagia, or malnutrition. The ratio is 2 to 1. One study of university students in the UK confirms an even higher ratio: 55 percent of participants gained weight during their stressful first year, compared to only 12 percent who lost weight. The female students in the study were more susceptible to both weight loss and gain than their male counterparts. The results appeared in the journal Physiology & Behavior in 2007.
The prevalence of hyperphagia under stress makes sense given the longer period that cortisol stays in your system, making you want to eat. Plus, chronic stress continually raises cortisol levels, for example if you’re struggling to adjust to a new situation, say in college, or caring for a sick or elderly relative.
Diet schemes and weight loss
If you tend to gain weight under stress, you are probably a “low-key” eater under normal circumstances, according to a 2006 study published in Physiology and Behavior. This means that you are prone to dieting, and when you are under stress, you choose foods that are prohibited during the diet, such as those high in fat and high in sugar. In contrast, “runaway” eaters are less likely to be dieters, and they tend to eat less food when under stress.
Loss of appetite by a rampant eater can lead to weight loss during times of stress. If you consume less food than your body needs to perform many functions, you will lose weight over time. For example, if your body requires 1,700 calories per day, but you only consume 1,200 calories per day for a month, when you are in a stressful situation, you will lose a lot of calories.
Recovery from weight loss
If your appetite tends to decrease when you’re under stress, try eating small meals and snacks throughout the day to keep your calorie count constant. Eat a healthy and comprehensive diet and stay away from low-calorie junk food, which can further drain your system.
Good food options for maintaining the calories you need or restoring weight are lean protein, nuts and seeds, avocados, dairy products, dried fruits, fresh fruits like bananas and mangoes, olives and olive oil. For example, you can snack on celery with hummus, Greek yogurt, nuts and raisins, a slice of whole wheat toast with almond butter, two hard-boiled eggs, or a banana milk smoothie. Eating enough protein every day can help restore muscle that you may have lost while under stress.
Weight loss signs are associated with stress
Stress can cause more than unexpected weight loss. Other stress symptoms include:
- stomach upset
- tense muscles
- mood changes
- difficulty with short-term memory
- increased heart rate
- decreased sex drive
Why do we lose weight?
When you are under stress, you may behave differently than usual, such as skipping lunch because you are busy or going to bed very late to do something important.
Your body’s response to fight or flight can speed up your metabolism.
When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This physiological mechanism, also known as the “acute stress response,” tells your body to respond to a perceived threat.
Your body prepares itself by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares your body for vigorous activity, but it can also minimize your cravings for food.
Meanwhile, cortisol signals your body to temporarily suppress functions that are irrelevant during a crisis. This includes your responses to the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems.
You don’t feel hungry
The overwhelming power of stress can make you think of nothing else. This can affect your eating habits. You may not feel hungry or you may forget to eat altogether due to stress, which leads to weight loss.
A calorie counter is a good resource to help you get quality nutrition every day.