Stress and Weight Loss: What You Need to Know

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Stress and Weight Loss: What You Need to Know

Woman sitting at desk stressed

For many people, being stressed can lead to behavioural changes which can impact weight. This can be either weight loss or weight gain: it varies person to person.

Sudden, unintentional weight loss is often directly linked to stress. While this is often temporary, it’s important to recognise the signs and what to do about it. Here’s everything you need to know.

Why do people lose weight when stressed?

It’s normal for weight to fluctuate from time to time. But, stressful events (such as a divorce or bereavement) might lead to fast, noticeable weight loss. This is because stress can impact bodily systems and processes.

It’s important to be aware that everyone will experience stress differently, but here are some common effects it can have:

Gastrointestinal discomfort

Slow digestion can be brought on by stressors, which can lead to discomfort, including:

  • Stomach cramps/pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Inflammation
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle spasms
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Nausea
  • Heartburn1

In turn, these can correlate with weight loss over time and make you less likely to eat.

Healthy bowl of food

Fight or flight response

When the body is under stress, it can release adrenaline which activates the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response2. This can cause the heart rate to rise and breathing to speed up, boosting metabolism. This can mean you burn more calories.

The fight or flight response has a number of effects too, such as:

  • Changing how the gut digests food
  • Altering blood glucose levels
  • Reducing appetite

These symptoms can alter eating habits, meaning you may eat significantly less.

Cortisol production

Feelings of stress can lead to cortisol production, otherwise known as the ‘stress hormone’. In some people, it can reduce desire to eat healthily and lead to poor food choices. However, in others, it can suppress hunger completely, reducing any desire to eat at all.

Many people simply forget to eat, or don’t feel hungry, when stressed, leading to weight loss.

Disrupted sleep

Many people struggle to get quality sleep at night when stressed, which can negatively impact eating habits. It also leads to cortisol production.

Healthy breakfast of fruit and oats

Is stress the cause?

It’s important to be aware that stress may not be the cause of weight loss. It could be due to an illness, or malnutrition, so it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor. However, some other signs of stress to watch out for include:

  1. Headaches
  2. Mood changes
  3. Irritability
  4. Fatigue
  5. Increased heart rate
  6. Indigestion
  7. Pain
  8. Difficulty sleeping
  9. Tiredness
  10. Changes in toilet habits
  11. Weakened immune system

Essentially, your body’s reaction to feelings of stress can impact you in many different ways, sometimes leading to sudden weight loss.

When is weight loss a concern?

For some people, the impact of stress is only temporary and will pass. However, the persistent, unintentional loss of more than 5% of your weight over 6 months to a year is usually a cause for concern3.

Particularly if combined with other adverse effects, dramatic weight loss can be serious and something to seek medical help about. Watch out for symptoms such as chronic headaches, chest pain, or using drugs and alcohol to cope.

Why does weight loss happen?

Essentially, if you consistently burn more calories than you take in, you’ll lose weight over time4. The time this can take varies, but it can be unintentional for some, particularly during a stressful life event.

How to improve eating habits

If feelings of stress have negatively impacted your eating habits and disrupted your routine, there are ways you can get back on track.

Eat little and often

If the thought of a big meal is too much to stomach, eat something small. Eating more frequently can also help keep your blood sugar levels in check, improving mood.

Eat with other people

If you’re forgetting to eat, eating with others can be a good idea, as you’ll adhere to proper mealtimes and be likely to consume more. You could also try setting reminders on your phone.

Foods to avoid

Meal prepping can be a useful way to ensure you’re eating, and having a balanced meal. Avoid choosing foods that spike your blood sugar, such as fatty, fried foods or high-sugar options. The spikes and crashes in blood sugar can leave you feeling worse than before.

Foods to choose

Some food can help lift mood and help you feel less stressed, such as:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Fermented foods (e.g. kimchi)
  • Oats
  • Leafy greens
  • Carrots
  • Berries
  • Fatty fish
  • Bananas5

These foods can all help increase the production of serotonin, helping you feel happier. They’ll also release energy more slowly, preventing spikes in blood sugar and energy crashes.

The foods we eat have a big impact on our mood and general wellbeing, so it’s important to choose the right ones.

Can stress lead to weight gain?

Conversely, stress and weight gain can also go hand in hand. While, at first, it can give you less of an appetite, it can have the opposite effect over time, boosting hunger instead6. This is because your body believes you’ve used energy (calories) to deal with stress, and therefore that you need to replenish those.

As mentioned, stress leads to cortisol production, which can increase insulin levels. When your blood sugar drops you crave sugary, fatty foods. This can make you more likely to make poor eating habits instead of choosing healthy foods for energy, eroding any self-control.

Also, when stressed, you’re less motivated to exercise, making weight loss in general much more difficult.

How to deal with stress

Dealing with stress is the first step to making healthier habits, feeling happier and leading a better life in general. Your first priority shouldn’t be weight; shift your focus to stress relief instead. Certain coping mechanisms may have a positive impact on weight. Some tips include:

  1. Admitting you’re stressed (it’s the first step!)
  2. Taking up a hobby
  3. Meditating
  4. Moderate exercise
  5. Reducing alcohol consumption
  6. Taking some time for yourself
  7. Spending more time with others
  8. Laughing and finding enjoyment day to day
  9. Cutting back on caffeine7

Leading a healthier lifestyle

Living a healthy life isn’t all about weight. Good sleep, adequate nutrition and improved mood are also important factors. It’s important to look at the full picture, not the number on the scale. Stress can have adverse effects on overall health, not just weight, so it’s important to take it seriously.

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