During our lifetime, we are bound to face psychological stress in all its forms; it can be caused by the death of a loved one, toxic work environment, family issues, academic exams, and the list goes on and on.
The bottom line is: experiencing stress at some point in your life is inevitable.
However, this doesn’t mean that all stress is bad; on the contrary, some types of stress are necessary to motivate us and keep us going such as the stress we feel before an exam.
This type of stress is healthy and temporary, and once you finish your exam, it will disappear.
The bad type of stress is the chronic type, which lasts for months or even years and can be detrimental to your body.
“Why?” you might ask. Well, the answer is complicated, but I’ll try to simplify it.
While it’s true that our brains are fascinating at what they do, there are still some limits to their function. One of these limits is their poor ability to distinguish between psychological and physical stress.
In other words, if you are working in a toxic environment that results in psychological stress, your body acts as if there is a bear constantly chasing you; it will release stress hormones, elevate your heart rate, and even modify the structure of the brain.
What happens inside your body when you get stressed?
Whenever you stress, your brain will launch the fight or flight response mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. As a result, stress hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol are released in the bloodstream.
Each of these hormones acts on a specific type of receptors found in different tissues. For instance, epinephrine will cause your peripheral blood vessels to constrict, so that the majority of the blood flow is redirected towards your heart and skeletal muscles.
In addition to that, epinephrine will cause your airways and pupil to dilate.
In conclusion, these stress hormones will promote anything that will help you escape the danger you’re facing (e.g. getting chased by a bear), and inhibit other unnecessary operations such as digesting food and producing urine.
How does stress cause weight gain?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stressful situations. It has many functions, including the reduction of inflammation, the suppression of the immune system, and the alteration of metabolism.
The last property is what causes people to gain weight when exposed to chronic stress. You see, cortisol is able to upregulate the catabolism (breakdown) of protein, the production of new glucose molecules (a.k.a gluconeogenesis), and the transformation of glucose molecules to fatty acids that will get stored in adipose tissues.
The final result of all these metabolic pathways is weight gain, especially in the abdomen, neck, and face.
Modification of eating habits
We are emotional creatures and we respond to everything in our lives depending on how we feel.
During stressful times, some people will stop eating altogether while others will stress-eat like crazy!
This is why you often see people who are dealing with psychological stress gaining weight as time goes by.
Moreover, sugar cravings become more powerful, our meal choices become less healthy, and we turn to fast food.
These factors along with the high levels of cortisol in your blood will not only make you gain substantial weight, but it will also increase your risk of developing debilitating diseases such as type 2 diabetes, blood hypertension, coronary artery disease, and some types of cancer.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR)
In a 2015 study, researchers tried to find the link between stress and basal metabolic rate.
BMR is the number of calories your body needs per day without executing any physical activity. In other words, it is the energy needed to maintain the functionality of your internal organs and to keep your eyes open!
BMR is influenced by multiple factors such as genetics, body size, gender, lean muscle mass, etc.
At the end of the experiment, researchers added a new factor to this list; stress!
The more you experience stressors in your life, the slower your BMR gets. As a result, you’ll be burning fewer calories per day, simply because you are stressed.
Along with the other factors mentioned above, this will contribute to weight gain.
Oftentimes, when we are feeling stressed, we tend to either oversleep (hypersomnia) or get less sleep (insomnia). Either way, hormonal levels will be out of whack and it results in weight gain.
While the exact mechanisms involved in sleep disturbance-associated weight gain are not clearly understood, scientists believe it is the result of the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol.
The last thing people think of when they are facing a life crisis is exercise, and it makes sense.
However, this is one of the important factors that causes the gain of extra pounds when we are stressed.
By stopping your exercise routine and switching to unhealthy eating habits, you will have the perfect recipe for weight gain.
Stress has become a triggering factor of many diseases in modern days; it can cause heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, gastric ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome.
The list of diseases doesn’t end here. In fact, some researchers believe stress plays a role in the vast majority of maladies we acquire today.
Nevertheless, stress management has become primordial, and everyone should try to control their stress to prevent its associated health consequences.
For this reason, you should integrate some activities that may reduce your stress such as meditation, yoga, listening to music, and jogging.
The most important thing is to put things into perspective and to remember that the source of your stress is temporary and that you will feel better eventually.
If you have ever dealt with stress-induced weight gain, feel free to share your story in the comment section below.