Stress and Weight Gain

The Link Between Stress and Weight Gain



In our article, ‘Ways to Stop Stress Eating’ we talked about how stress makes us more susceptible to overeat. In this article, we’ll explore the physiological effects of stress on a person and its relationship to weight gain and obesity.

What is Chronic Stress?

The body reacts to stress in many ways. In short-term stress such as in acute stress, the body releases “stress hormones” that put the body in a fight or flight response. The brain can become more alert, muscles may tense, and your pulse may start to race in anticipation. This is the body’s way of protecting you.

With chronic stress, the body remains in this state for longer periods. As a result, it may cause health problems and molecular changes to occur. Chronic stress may be caused by illness (mental or physical), marital problems, financial problems, and etc.

What Happens to the Body During Chronic Stress?

Cortisol, the stress hormone in the glucocorticoids class of hormones, is released when the body is under stress. The hormone raises your blood pressure, blood sugar and can suppress your immune system.

Researchers from University College London looked into the relationship between cortisol and body weight. Of 2,500 men and women they studied, they found that increased cortisol may play a key role in increased weight.

The connection between cortisol and higher BMI was observed in previous smaller studies and a handful of those have also come to the same conclusion as the one from the University College London. The University College London researchers added that there could be a possibility of an opposite effect between cortisol and weight gain meaning that being overweight could lead to increased cortisol levels. They added that additional research is needed to further understand the connection.

But despite that, plenty of other professionals in the field agree that the connection between the two does exist.

In an interview with the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Leslie Heinberg, Director of Behavioral Services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests that people who have higher BMI or have more visceral fat (abdominal fat) have higher cortisol levels. However, Dr. Heinberg, who did not participate in the previously mentioned study, also notes that cortisol levels fluctuate within the day.

A study published in Cell Metabolism suggests that the timing of your stressful events matter in terms fat cell development.

Dr. Mary Teruel and her team at Stanford University School of Medicine discovered that the timing of stress hormone release was as important as the increase itself.

According to an article published by the Stanford Medicine News Center, fat cells normally turn over at a rate of 10% per year and then they die and are replaced by differentiated fat cells. Teruel’s team was interested in how we stayed in this state and what changes it or “what flips the switch” that leads to weight gain.

No one had ever studied the relationship between glucocorticoid pulses (the natural cycle of stress hormone increase and decrease over a 24 hour period) and their link to obesity.

The result from Teruel’s research was pioneering. Teruel’s findings could explain why we gain weight due to chronic stress or why we gain weight when our normal circadian rhythm is disrupted or why those treated with glucocorticoid drugs gain weight.

Yes, the timing of your stress does matter. Since conversion of precursor cells into fat cells occurs through a bistable switch, it means you can control the process with pulsing. Our results suggest that even if you get significantly stressed or treat your rheumatoid arthritis with glucocorticoids, you won’t gain weight, as long as stress or glucocorticoid treatment happens only during the day. But if you experience chronic, continuous stress or take glucocorticoids at night, the resulting loss of normal circadian glucocorticoid oscillations will result in significant weight gain,” Teruel said.

Teruel’s next challenge is to determine the link between food, insulin and glucocorticoids.

Summary

The body reacts to stress in many ways. In short-term stress, the body releases “stress hormones” that put the body in a fight or flight response. The brain can become more alert, muscles may tense, and your pulse may start to race in anticipation. This is the body’s way of protecting you.

With chronic stress, the body remains in this state for longer periods. As a result, it may cause health problems and molecular changes to occur. Studies have shown that higher stress hormones lead to weight gain and more abdominal fat. Another study has suggested that people gain weight due to the timing of dips and rises of stress hormones in the body.

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References

"Stress and your health" - MedlinePlus
 
"Stress hormone rise at night leads to weight gain" - Stanford Medicine, April 3, 2018

 
"Timing of stress-hormone pulses controls weight gain" - Stanford Medicine, April 3, 2018
 
"Can Long-Term Stress Make You Gain Weight? Study Finds a Link" - Cleveland Clinic, July 12, 2017