We’ve all heard that stress can make us a little softer round the edges. In fact, in periods of high stress we often see the numbers on the scales creeping up week by week. However, until recently there was no real concrete reason as to why this was the case, if it was at all. So how exactly does stress make weight gain so much more likely?
Stress Eating for Comfort
The most common association most of us have between stress and weight gain is the tendency to overeat when we’re feeling stressed out. It’s not uncommon to overeat or eat junk food when feeling tense. This could be down to it being quick and convenient, but it’s also a source of comfort for many people. That short lived mood boost from having a donut helps alleviate the feeling of stress, although it’s often filled by guilt which can then cause us to eat badly again.
The reason junk food and binge eating gives us a happy feeling of relief is because it causes our brain to release dopamine, a ‘happy’ chemical. This makes us want to search the ‘high’ we get again by eating more junk food, like an addiction. With the added effect of junk food potentially holding properties that can impede our brain from telling us when we’re full, weight gain seems inevitable.
However, there are other reasons that have been discovered that links stress and weight gain.
Stress and Blood Sugar
When we experience stress, our body spikes our blood sugar levels. The reason for this is survival. Back when humans were still cavemen the additional blood sugar would give you extra energy to run away from predators, which were the stimulus for stressful feelings. The same thing still happens in modern day humans, but our stressful scenarios don’t require us to run and use the extra energy. Instead we’re sat at a desk fretting over work not using the excess energy.
The significance of blood sugar doesn’t stop there though. When we eat, our blood sugar also rises but then returns to normal very quickly. When it rises due to stress, it can take around six times longer than normal to fall. So, if we fail to use up this excess energy and eat during the slow fall blood sugar will be raised for even longer. Since blood sugar is reduced by insulin being released and insulin makes you hungry it causes a snowball effect. The suddenly increased hunger and the need for quick sources of sugary energy – due to falling blood sugar – results in weight gain.
Can This Be Counteracted at All?
The best way to counteract this is to find ways to process and reduce stress. Exercise will be one way to release stress as this will use up the extra sugar in the blood without the need for insulin release. To prevent stress building up in the first place it takes a shift in habits and lifestyle. A good night’s sleep will be beneficial as you feel less tired and cranky, as well as meditative exercises such as tai chi or yoga. This will help keep you on an even keel more of the time, making you less susceptible to getting sugar and insulin spikes and subsequently over eating.