Can Chronic Stress Cause Weight Gain?

by: Elena Novosad, MPAS, PA - C, CNGS


We all know that stress effects our overall health, but not many are aware that chronic stress is associated with significant weight gain. With today’s fast paced lifestyle, the majority of us are juggling many responsibilities like career, family, multi-generational households, community and social activities, aging parents and friends, with less and less “me” time available for peace and relaxation.

I was reminded of Lewis Carroll's book “Through the Looking-Glass”. Where Alice was surprised by the fact that she was constantly running but remained in the same spot. When she questioned this, the Red Queen responded “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast!” How true! Run, run, run. I have a few friends that tell me they perform much better in high stress situations. Who knows, but it’s a high price to pay for functioning in a chronic stress environment.

An isolated stressful situation is not going to lead to a health problem, but chronic stress in combination with sleep deprivation, consumption of high amount of caffeine will take a significant toll on your health and wellbeing. Let’s examine what processes happen in our body when we are facing a stressful situation.

  • Within seconds after a facing a stressful event a cascade of powerful hormones is released into our circulation.

  • Fight and flight hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are preparing the body for survival by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure.

  • Also, by stimulating the liver to increase the sugar level and provide the energy for fight or flight response.

  • Following the epinephrine, several other hormones corticotropin-releasing-hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, a glucocorticoid (GC) hormone are also released.

Cortisol especially has a significant effect on appetite and weight management. Cortisol stimulates appetite with a preference for food rich in fat and sugar. If you are facing a bear all your body resources are going to be mobilized to increase your survival but within an hour (if you are lucky enough to survive the bear) it should be quickly replenished. This is why the appetite is triggered with cravings for high calorie food rich in fat and sugar. We all experience after a stressful situation strong craving for “comfort food” usually something fat and sweet. My comfort food is a dark chocolate. I don’t even like sweets but facing stressful situation I can’t help it and my body is screaming… “I want a dark chocolate!”. Another effect of cortisol on the body, is that it reduces the sensitivity of the brain to leptin. Leptin is one of the main hormones responsible for appetite regulation and suppression.


In the case of isolated stressful events, post event hormones return to the base line ending the stress response. However, in case of the chronic stress hormones remain elevated continuously increasing your appetite and cravings for fatty, sugary food. Why it’s important? Because managing the stress is fundamental for a healthy productive life and weight management. Slow down. Schedule time for yourself and learn how to manage stress in a healthy way.



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