Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?
Do you feel tired, have difficulties sleeping, weigh more than you should, experience head aches, or have digestive problems?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are that you are part of the 77% of us that feel the weight of chronic stress every day. The paradox of our modern society is that with our ever increasing “conveniences,” life is becoming more complex and stressful.
We are living lives our bodies were not designed to live and our waistlines are expanding. Increasingly, we find ourselves inside all day long, not using our bodies to work and not eating real food. Additionally, studies show that the more time we spend keeping up with news, on Facebook, and watching TV, the more stressed we become.
Whether we realize it or not, these things are putting a stress on our bodies and our minds. It creates a negative spiral. The more stressed we feel, the more we turn to these things that are actually causing our stress.
What is Causing Our Stress?
Just what is causing 77% of us to feel so much stress? According the Stress in America 2013 Report by the American Psychological Association, the top 5 causes of our stress are in the following order:
1. Health (family or personal)
5. Family responsibilities
How Stress Recently Threw me Off Balance
I recently finished a difficult week of being on call at the hospital. As a cardiologist this means that I am available 24/7 for a week to help our patients.
The work load is intense and I am constantly receiving calls and on the run helping patients throughout the hospital. With these hectic days, I am lucky if I can even carve out 5 minutes to eat.
The stress of racing to keep up really threw my eating off balance. I was craving junk, I was hungry all the time, and my energy was depleted.
In my attempt to eat I did it all wrong for several days. I just wanted to kill the hunger pains.
Here’s how my thought process went: “I have no time to eat, but I’ve got to get something fast so I can keep working. I’ll just get a slice of veggie whole wheat pizza and make sure I’m getting in some steps while I eat. Also, I am so depleted physically, I think I’ll just take a few swallows (three to four to be exact) of Diet Coke from this free soda dispensers in the staff area.”
It’s a vicious cycle, and I knew it. I eat pizza and drink Diet Coke and it just makes me want to do it all over again. It’s not real food and it’s not giving my body what it needs.
When I am stressed, I have a raging appetite. I think about food all of the time and it is hard to feel full.
The only thing that keeps me from putting on extra weight during periods of intense stress is that I keep a very detailed food and nutrition log each day on my iPhone. Somehow, this tool helps me to get back on track more quickly when I lose my way.
Hormonal Changes to Our Body with Stress
Just how does stress cause weight gain? In addition to cravings and the desire to overeat, stress has many other effects on me.
Even though my phone was not ringing during the night when I was on call, I started having problems sleeping again. I also had difficulties engaging with my family in the evenings.
It turns out that all sorts of things were out of balance in my body due to stress. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in our bodies when we are under stress.
1. High Cortisol
When we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol. The two main effects of cortisol are to raise our blood sugar and shut down our immune system.
When our blood sugar goes up insulin levels also go up. Insulin is the main hormone in our body that causes us to store our calories as fat on our body.
Insulin also makes us hungry. Cortisol decreases leptin so our brains never get the signal we are full. Another hunger hormone, ghrelin, is increased.
Of course, when our immune system is suppressed we are very likely to get sick. Have you or someone you know ever taken prednisone, a Medrol Dose Pack, or another steroid before? What happened with the surging cortisol from these steroids?
Did you or someone you know experience an increased appetite and gain weight? The same thing happens when we feel stress.
2. High Adrenalin
Adrenalin for short periods of time, i.e. during intense exercise, can feel good and strengthen the body. However, when the adrenalin is never shut off, like with chronic stress, it wears out the body.
In particular, chronically high levels of adrenalin cause plaque build up throughout the body leading to heart attacks and strokes. It also raises blood pressure and is associated with back and other joint pains.
3. Low Thyroid Hormone
When we are exposed to chronic stress, thyroid hormone production generally decreases. Low thyroid hormone makes us tired and causes us to gain weight by slowing our metabolism down.
4. Low Growth Hormone
When children are exposed to constant high levels of stress, they can develop a medical condition called stress dwarfism. This condition causes their bodies to stop producing growth hormone.
Children with stress dwarfism not only stop growing but the development of their cognitive abilities slows as well. Chronic stress can also cause growth hormone deficiency in adults, causing us to lose muscle mass, gain more fat, and lose our energy.
5. High Insulin
Not only is our insulin increased from toxic cortisol levels when we are stressed, but our cells also become resistant to the effects of insulin. This causes our pancreas to make even more insulin.
With surging levels of insulin, we are then at high risk for diabetes. As the insulin levels go up even more with stress, our body goes into fat storage mode and we feel compelled to eat even more.
11 Ways to Stop Stress from Making Us Gain Weight
The first step to preventing weight gain from stress is to recognize your stress. Modern life is incredibly stressful. If we don’t actively do something everyday to keep stress in check, stress may affect our health. Let me share with you my 10 very best tips:
1. Track Yourself
When I find myself under intense stress, I have to be incredibly careful, or I will reach for the pizza and Diet Coke wherever I am.
This is why, when I am feeling stressed, I track myself. Stressed or not, in general, most of us eat much more than we think we do. For many of us, tracking what we eat is the single most effective tool to bring awareness of what we are actually eating, otherwise weight gain will likely occur. This is only magnified when we are stressed.
Tracking tools that have brought me the greatest success include my free healthy habit tracker app or an app on your smartphone like Lose It. While I am not a fan of “counting calories” using some sort of a tracking system is the key to successfully avoiding weight gain during a stressful period of time.
2. Name 3 Things You Are Grateful for Daily
Gratitude puts everything in perspective. One of the biggest causes of stress is that our expectations are not being met.
If we focus on the blessings we already have instead of what we lack we can help to drive chronic stress out of our lives. This is why my free healthy habit tracker app requires us to physically enter 3 things we are grateful for each day. If we focus on the blessings we already have, instead of what we lack, we can help to drive chronic stress out of our lives.
3. Exercise and Log 10,000 Steps Each Day
Our ancestors did not have the same problems with stress that we do today. They worked hard outside each day which caused their levels of cortisol, adrenalin, thyroid hormone, growth hormone, and insulin to return to normal levels.
It is next to impossible to get all of these hormones back to normal levels if we sit all day long. Our bodies were designed to help keep stress levels under control by daily physical activity.
This is why I encourage people to get a daily dose of exercise and to log 10,000 steps each day. The exercise gets our hearts moving and the steps make sure we use our muscles through the day.
4. Spend At Least 20 Minutes Outside Daily
In our modern fast paced stress-filled lives we have forgotten what it is like to go outside each day. Even our ancient ancestors did not sit in caves all day long.
They knew the value of getting outside. Spending time outside has been shown to reduce stress and hunger hormones. It also helps with sleep.
5. Set a Bedtime Alarm Clock
Do you feel like there just is not enough time in the day? If so, you are not alone.
We try to catch up on things we need to get done or even just relax with the TV or the computer late at night. I have found that the number one reason why we are so sleep deprived is that we don’t have a consistent bedtime.
Rather than set the alarm clock in the morning try setting it at night. The rules are very simple. Set the alarm clock for a time like 10 pm. You cannot turn the alarm clock off until you are in bed with the lights out. With a goal of at least 7 hours of sleep each night it will allow us to help manage our stress.
6. Eat Real Food
When we are stressed out, we are generally driven to eat anything but Real Food. The hormonal imbalance from stress drives us to eat sugar and processed foods.
If we can eat 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, at least 1 serving of nuts or seeds, and at least 1 serving of a legume (beans/lentils) each day it will give our bodies everything they need to counteract the dangerous effects of stress. It can also give us the energy and clear thinking to get us out of our stressful situations. Indeed, everything seems to get better when we focus on Real Food!
Let’s face it, our lives are chaotic and noisy. We are too disconnected from the peace and calm of nature our ancestors once enjoyed.
We have to find a quiet place to help keep our stress in check. This could be meditation, prayer, or even something like yoga. Studies have shown that meditation can restore all of the hormonal imbalances of stress.
8. Really Connect with People
For most of us, especially men, when we feel stressed we turn inward. Under periods of stress, real connection with others is critically important.
No, Facebook and Twitter does not count as real human connection. Seek out a close friend or family member and make sure you connect with these people each day.
9. Help Someone Daily
When we focus on ourselves our problems can look really big. I know this is the case with me. The best way to get out of our own stress-filled head is to help someone else.
Make it intentional to reach out and be of service to someone each day. This could be as simple as giving an old friend a call, sharing food with a neighbor, or writing a thank you note.
10. Go On a News Fast
The old saying “if it bleeds, it leads” really is true with media. Unfortunately, our brains then fixate on the fear based negative news. Negative news activates our stress hormones and reinitiates the negative spiral of stress.
I recommend going on a news fast. Unless your job demands that you follow the headline news, it is best for our spiritual health to minimize our exposure to all of the fear and negativity from the news.
11. Manage Our Expectations
Sometimes we just cannot change the situation. Learn to accept what it impossible to change.
One of the biggest causes of stress and unhappiness is when our expectations are not being met. Sometimes we just have to change our expectations.
At the end of the day, there are just things that are beyond our control. We simply can’t fix everything.
To bring it all home, does stress cause weight gain? The answer is definitely yes. We must recognize the stress in our lives and actively do something each day to relieve stress. What have you found that works for stress relief?
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.