Could stress be making you overweight?

The world has evolved at an incredible pace and continues to do so, but our bodies have not. They’re not adapted for all of the constant stimulation we are put under and as a result they think we are regularly in danger, so naturally they try to protect us. Unfortunately the body does not understand the difference between real and perceived threat so even though we may only be stressing about the amount of emails in our inbox, the body thinks it must prepare us to be able to either fight or run away and so it sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events to ensure our safety.
Ironically, since we are rarely actually fighting or running away this response is in fact causing massive implications to our health and our waistlines. The strategies to overcome this response are actually quite simple, but in order to make them a consistent part of our lives we must first understand their importance. Let’s take a look at a few of the areas most effected by this response and how they impact our bodies.

Could stress be making you overweight?


The body’s first response to threat is to activate the adrenal glands. These release adrenaline to increase the heartrate and get the blood pumping harder and faster around the body, and cortisol to flood the body with glucose to give the muscles immediate energy. If the physical activity expected by the body isn’t performed however and the levels of stress are constant, these hormones and the excess energy hang around. Cortisol then slows the metabolism to maintain the glucose supply and when it’s not used eventually it is stored as fat.
Where do you reckon its favourite place to be stored is? The belly of course! And to add even more insult to injury, this belly fat is actually an active tissue so it responds to stress by welcoming even more fat. These constant elevated glucose levels also mean that insulin (produced to help the cells absorb the glucose) is being suppressed, so the cells are not receiving their energy and call out to the brain for help. The brain’s response is to send out hunger signals, which then commonly elicits a response to overeat. Hello more weight gain.


While all this is going on with the adrenals, the body shuts down anything that is not integral to survival at that time. Digestion fits nicely into this category, so the body diverts the blood flow away from there and into the areas that are needed to fight or run, and also slows down the part of the brain that controls the muscles involved in digestion. Food is then not digested properly so is not eliminated and a toxic build up ensues. These toxins love to retain fat and excess water, and make you feel puffy and sluggish, all of which are not conducive to weight regulation. The calories we eat are supposed to be used for either building tissues or burning fat, however they need sufficient nutrients in order to do so.
If we are not absorbing the nutrients because our digestion is poor these calories are not fulfilling their destiny, so they turn to the dark side and cause yet more excess fat.  The absence of these nutrients also triggers an urge to eat in an attempt to get the body what it needs, but often we have no idea what it wants so we give it the wrong thing, leaving us feeling consistently hungry and in fat storage mode, making weight loss virtually impossible.


Sleep is the body’s opportunity to restore, regenerate and rebuild. The immune system goes to work, the pituitary gland releases growth hormones for muscles and tissue repair and the brain organises all the information from that day allowing optimal memory and cognitive functioning when we’re awake. If we’re not allowing all of this to happen our performance, both consciously and unconsciously, will be seriously disrupted. In terms of our weight the biggest disruption through lack of sleep is to the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which turn our appetite on and off, and tell the brain what to do with the fat (whether to use it for energy or store it). Clearly if this process is confused we are going to experience unnecessary hunger, not know when we’re full and store fat when it should be burned. And that’s not to mention the disruption to our thinking if we haven’t had enough sleep – our ability to make good decisions, particularly regarding food and exercise will be seriously impaired also. Again, hello weight gain.


Exercise is a stress on the body. Not necessarily a bad stress I hasten to add but that all depends on what state the body is in. If it’s in a constant heightened state of stress then it will already have excess hormones swimming around so doesn’t need any more. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we just eat better and move more we’ll lose weight, but this isn’t always the case if there’s physiological responses going on inside. Since exercise releases cortisol it is actually possible that if our cortisol levels are already too high and the impacts of that are already evident, then exercise could actually be contributing to our weight gain. Now I’m not saying you should stop exercising, not at all, but if you are in this situation it would be a good idea to re-evaluate the type and intensity of exercise you’re doing and perhaps bring it down a notch until the body is restored.


So how do we overcome these issues and allow our bodies to do what nature intended? Eliminate all of the stresses from our lives? Let’s be realistic here. Of course that’s not possible but what we can do is adjust the way we respond to them, which we can achieve through the following:
  • Get adequate sleep – 7-8 hours is ideal
  • Establish a sleep routine – set a time to go to sleep and wake up, make bedtime a nice event (perhaps with a good book or candles), turn off technology 30-60 minutes before sleep (as well as the over stimulation, the blue light kills melatonin which is needed for sleep)
  • Know your triggers – what causes you stress and how can you prepare yourself so you become less effected by them
  • Have an awareness of what’s going on with your body – notice how your body responds in different situations
  • Journal – make a note in your phone or diary when you notice thoughts and feelings (both physical and mental) come up so that you can start to identify patterns
  • Eat simple meals – no more than 7 ingredients, which means whole and natural foods as much as possible
  • Practice belly breathing and pay attention to the breath – take a minute or two to breathe deeply 10 times and notice the wave of relaxation come over you (this helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system which is over active when stressed)
  • Practice yoga – this is unbelievable in helping you become aware and get you out of your head
  • Meditate – this is the best way to calm the sympathetic nervous system and allow the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system) to come out to play, therefore giving you a sense of calm and clarity
  • Talk about what’s stressing you out or even write it down – whatever you need to do to just get it out of your head
  • Get professional advice regarding the best exercise program to suit your needs at that time (however if exercise is making you excessively fatigued then that is a good sign for you to calm it down so perhaps try swapping the gym for yoga and walking for a while to restore inner balance)
  • Do what makes you happy – schedule it in at least once a week and don’t let anything distract you from it

Remember that the key to success here is: slow, steady and consistently wins the race. Don’t feel like you have to employ all of these strategies all at once – pick one or two, nail them and then add on another one or two, until eventually you have yourself a lovely little routine that you feel comfortable with and that becomes part of what you naturally do.

The feedback I get from my clients all the time is that they can’t believe how much impact the little changes make – this could be the same for you too. Rather than going all or nothing, try little and often – and watch the long-term results start rolling in.

Leave a Comment