How Can Stress Affect Your Weight?

Dr. Jeffrey Heit Health Guide
  • If you have a pulse, you breathe, and you live in the United States of America in 2008, there is no doubt that you have been stressed at one time or another. Some of us are stressed more often than others, and some are stressed more easily than others. Stress can have many effects on our bodies. Most notably, it increases the secretion of cortisol from our adrenal glands. Cortisol is also known as the "stress hormone." Among other things, it can cause weight gain and increase serum glucose levels.

     

    The good news is that it takes a prolonged period of stress to get your body's own cortisol level high enough and long enough, to even start having those types of effects. Most of the time, the cortisol level transiently increases, causing some glucose elevation but then subsides without much other effect that medical science is currently aware of.

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    However, stress can also affect our appetites in a much more short term and significant manner. Many of us report eating ravenously when we're stressed. Think of the classic college freshman who stays up to all hours studying and, more likely than not, is living away from home for the first time. There is even an expression for the weight gained by these individuals called the "freshman fifteen." What this shows is that people can eat larger quantities of food because of new and/or stressful situations.

     

    There is a reason some high calories meals are called "comfort food." When under pressure, some like to treat themselves to whatever they want to eat- in large quantities. It makes us feel better - at least temporarily. Can you imagine having a stressful day of hard work and then having to come home and eat a salad? Forget about it! I, for one, am a shift worker in an emergency room who tends to work nights much of the time. If I'm having a particularly busy night, one of the few things I look forward to is a snack break. Needless to say, I don't relish sitting down with a fruit or salad for my snack.

     

    Some of us do just the opposite. Stress makes us eat less and curbs our appetites. Usually, this type of stress is particularly more severe and is often accompanied by other psychological symptoms such as restlessness or lack of sleep, ruminating thoughts, and difficulty concentrating. There may be more of a depression or generalized anxiety diagnosis in these cases. You are encouraged to see your primary care provider if you are losing weight secondary to stress, lack of appetite or have any of the other aforementioned symptoms.

     

    As far as coping and/or combating the inevitable desire to eat junk foods and the weight gain that accompanies it, just knowing that this is a real phenomenon can help. It can prepare you to be more aware of your eating habits, especially during stressful times. I usually prepare a couple of measured snacks to take on those late night shifts so that when it's time to take a break, I know exactly how many calories I'm going to ingest.

     

    If milk and cookies are the order of the day, I'll pack 3 chocolate chip cookies, a total of 180-200 calories. I'll also drink skim milk instead of higher fat content milk like 1%, 2% or whole milk. Don't count out the fruit either. A nice apple can be a real treat, especially this time of year. Soon, oranges will be in season, another alternative or supplement to a controlled snack. Also realize that exercise is a great way to blow off steam and diffuse stress. I can't think of a better antidote to stress or weight gain than a regular exercise program. If none of these work for you, see your doctor. You may need some simple tests to make sure nothing is wrong with your metabolism.

Published On: December 03, 2008