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4 Ways Stress Can Make You Gain Weight (Plus 3 Tips To Avoid It!)

Stress. Is there anything it can’t do? Unfortunately, I don’t mean this in a good way (you know, like how cauliflower can literally do anything). I mean this in the way of: stress is at the root of most chronic inflammation issues, stress can trigger IBS, stress causes us to lose sleep, stress plays a big role in weight gain… 

Now, I’d like to preface this with one note on stress: not all of it is bad. In fact, there is a term “eustress” that I’d like us to get familiar with. This is the type that we get right before we take a test, or need to meet a project deadline. It’s the “good” kind - the one that gets us excited, or gives us relief once we’ve finished. 

However, today we live with something that many call “chronic stress”. This is the kind that underlies most of what we do in our daily lives: driving in traffic, having deadline after deadline after deadline, lack of sleep, social media, news, financial stress… you’re probably pretty familiar with it all. 

Here are 4 ways that stress can make you gain weight:

Our hormones are impacted by stress

Our stress hormone is called cortisol and is made by our adrenal glands. Our hormones all talk to each other and kind of direct our body on what to do: send signals, pass on messages, etc. Cortisol works closely with another hormone called estrogen. We normally attribute estrogen to women, however we all have it! Imbalanced estrogen in both men and women has been correlated with a higher weight. 

Cortisol also works alongside our hormone, insulin, which is used to regulate blood sugar. When our cortisol is imbalanced, it’s likely our blood sugar is out of whack too. This can lead to things like dysglycemia and insulin resistance, and weight gain - particularly around our midsection. 

Stress can affect digestion?

When we’re stressed, our digestion shuts down as we’re focus on sending our energy elsewhere in our bodies to deal with the stress. When we aren’t focused on breaking down our food properly, it ends up not being absorbed properly. This alone doesn’t always cause weight gain, however when our digestion isn’t optimal, we’re less likely to feel motivated to hit the gym, take the stairs, or sometimes even get off the couch!

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Stress is linked to chronic inflammation. 

Alongside stress, it feels like inflammation is one of the most discussed issues in the health and wellness world. Stress and inflammation can work hand-in-hand, with one triggering the other, or both simultaneously showing up, causing damage to our internal organs, joints, skin, and hair. We also see how inflammation can impact our weight! One thing I notice frequently in my practice is: taking out external stressors that may cause an inflammatory response (particular foods), can help to shed some extra pounds quite quickly! 

Our sleep cycles can affect weight gain. 

Our circadian rhythm has dictated our lives for millions of years. It is only recently that we’ve ignored our natural cycles to accommodate for modern lives. Today, we stay up late working or watching TV, get up only a few hours later to grab our caffeine, head to work and repeat the same cycle when we get home. When we don’t get enough sleep, we tend to overeat the next day, since our hormones, leptin and ghrelin, are out of balance. 

Now that you know that stress can impact our weight, you’re probably wondering how to avoid it?

Cut the caffeine. 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those pre-workouts and caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, pop, frappucino, pumpkin spiced latte…) you drink each day don’t help with weight loss. Caffeine affects our cortisol, sending it soaring and messing with our circadian rhythm. If our adrenals are forced to pump out more cortisol when it doesn’t want to, they eventually get tired, and we’ll see an imbalance of cortisol, which can lead to weight gain. 

Get some sleep! 

I can’t stress this one enough. If you feel severe stress each day, and notice that you hold weight around your midsection, check your sleep. Getting 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep each night is essential for our body to reset. When I say quality, I mean the deep kind. You can use a fitness tracker if you aren’t sure what your sleep is like. Here are a few tips to getting a restful sleep: 

  • Turn off electronics one hour before bed. Go read a book for the last hour, cozy in bed with your loved one and talk about your day, try journaling or meditating. 
  • Grab an eye mask or purchase blackout curtains.
  • Keep your room a little cooler in the evening (if you can control it).
  • Play some white noise while you sleep (water, laundry machine), or try some binaural beats made for sleeping. This can help drown out any excess noise if you live in a city or near a major road. 

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Take some deep breaths before you eat. 

Raise your hand if you eat your lunch in front of your desk or television, if you eat on the go, or if you start eating without even looking at or smelling your food. We tend to only see food as fuel, and something we have to do to keep our energy up or avoid the hangry feelings. However, digestion begins with sight and smell. 

So next time you’re about to eat lunch at your desk (yes, I do it too!) take one or two deep breaths so slow down. Actually look at what you are about to eat, and try to do it mindfully. This can keep you from overeating later on!

If you deal with overwhelming stress and see a lot of weight gain, it may be time to speak with a health care practitioner or a nutritionist about your next steps to hit your health goals!

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