Connect · How Stress Affects Weight and Weight Loss

How Stress Affects Weight and Weight Loss


[Adapted from Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss]

The hormonal response to chronic stress is a complex one, and unfortunately one that works mightily against your weight loss efforts. Repeated exposure to even mildly stressful situations pits your adrenal system against you. Your body enters a three-phase cycle that repeats itself on an endless loop until you do something to break it. Your adrenal system falls into a chronic stress-response state, which prompts the release of certain hormonal substances (called glucocorticoids) that both increase your appetite for high-sugar, high-fat comfort foods, and simultaneously signal the body to increase its abdominal fat stores. So there are two components going on here - the one being purely hormonal and biological, and the other being behavioral, or engaging in “stress eating.” So even if you can out-will the impulse to eat poorly, you can’t think away the hormonal tendencies to increase fat stores. You must find a way to relieve your chronic stress.

     A good place to start is by simply paying attention to your body. Are your shoulders hunched around your ears? Do you clench your jaw all day long? Do you frequently feel a pang in your stomach when you think about certain people or situations? What are your nervous habits? Keep track of these reactions for a few days and then ask yourself what triggered them. What were you thinking about or doing, who were you talking to? If see a pattern emerge, where one or a small handful of triggers are creating most of your stress, it’s time to take positive action to eliminate those habitual stressors in your life.

     If your stress is work-related then you have to decide whether this is the right line of work for you. Your first reaction may be that you can’t afford to change careers now, but is your job is really worth risking your health for? I’m not suggesting that you quit on the spot, as that’s likely to create a whole host of other stressors, but start coming up with a plan for how you can transition from doing something you dislike to doing something that feels more like a calling. Even just having this “escape plan” in place can change the way you feel about your job, relieving a lot of stress before you take any action at all.

     The people in our lives can often be a big source of stress, too, even those whom we love very much. Think about what it is that stresses you out. Is it something that person does? Is it something they expect you to do? Of course you can never force change on someone else, but sometimes simply communicating gently but directly with that person can resolve the situation pretty easily. Many people are completely oblivious to the fact that they are doing something or not doing something or that it bothers you, so you may have only to point it out in order to make it go away.

     Some stressors can’t be eliminated, so they have to be coped with. There are a number of ways to do this, and, not surprisingly, physical activity ranks high on the list. But you don’t have to do a hard-core workout every time you feel tense. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise two or three times a week can help fight stress, anxiety and depression. 

     Apart from physical activity, you can use breathing techniques, meditation, calming music or sounds, aromatherapy and other relaxation techniques to combat stress. Learn more about what you can do at