By Yasmine Ali, MD – Reviewed by a board-certified physician. A great deal of research has looked at, and found, a connection between chronic stress and weight gain. Over time, this can lead to overweight and obesity in previously normal-weight individuals.
Craving Comfort Food
As it turns out, that craving we sometimes have for “comfort food,” also known as emotional eating, has a biological basis. Researchers have found that a chronic stress-response network gets activated by our bodies within a matter of days when faced with perceived stress, whether that be emotional, mental, or physical stress, or a combination of the above.
As part of this response, biological pathways involving stress hormones and stress-related factors are activated. One category of stress-related substances are glucocorticoids, a form of steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands; these play a particular role in food cravings. High concentrations of glucocorticoids can motivate consumption of “comfort food,” which is often high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and saturated fats, and results in weight gain.
Chronic Stress and Obesity
In a cruel twist, not only do glucocorticoids make us crave comfort food, but they also act on body systems to increase abdominal fat, which can result in centripetal obesity. Over time, chronic stress with subsequently high levels of glucocorticoids can work together to result in weight gain and eventual obesity.
Other ways in which chronic stress contributes to obesity include disrupting sleep, sapping energy stores, and making impulse control more difficult.
Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to result in weight gain and obesity as well as cardiovascular disease and depression. Most studies have shown that seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night are required to reap the health benefits of good sleep, including those related to preventing obesity.
Being in chronically stressful circumstances can result in fatigue and depression, both of which make it more difficult to get and stay motivated to exercise, which is crucial for successful maintenance of weight loss and prevention of obesity. Physicians often refer to exercise as the “magic pill,” because adequate exercise can do all of the following and more: both treat and prevent obesity, prevent cardiovascular disease, improve mobility, provide stress relief, improve overall quality of life, prevent diabetes, improve healthy longevity, prevent dementia, and even prevent sudden cardiac death.
Breaking the Cycle
Ironically, the very activity that feeling stressed out can make so difficult—regular exercise—is one of the best bets for breaking the chronic stress cycle. Even if it’s just going for a brisk walk outdoors, this can work wonders in terms of stress relief. And knowing that you are doing something healthy for your body may improve your mood and motivate you to do more!Although almost all forms of physical activity will provide some stress relief, some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have been found to be particularly helpful in this regard.
Ultimately, however, what reduces stress will depend on each individual and how he or she responds; usually, it is your favorite activity, the one that makes you feel like you are having fun rather than performing a chore, that will be a winner for you.For more entrenched stress-inducing situations, it is always helpful to consult your physician, who can recommend a medical course of action if needed in addition to lifestyle changes.