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  • Lucas Vermot-Desroches

The Impact of Stress on Weight Gain

The way we act in our everyday life impacts how our bodies react, feel, and look. If we are happy, relaxed and are taking care of ourselves, our bodies will reflect this reality. However, if we are stressed and restless, then we will suffer the consequences. Stress has a direct impact on the weight we put on. We overeat when we feel that we are in danger. Stress engages this type of primal need to feed ourselves. We engage in a ‘fight or flight’ response, since we feel that we are immediately at risk. Therefore, our usual ability to know how much we actually need to eat becomes rigged based on this chemical change. Our mental stress directly affects our physical reality.

When we are faced with an immediately stressful event, we may suddenly not feel hungry at all. This complete lack of appetite is only a momentary result of this fight or flight response, but it is short lived. The effect afterwards is in fact the inverse. Cortisol, the hormone most directly associated with stress, is boosted in extreme quantities when we are stressed. After the immediate surge that stops our hunger based on stress, the opposite (extreme hunger) occurs in our body. We become hungry based on our sudden boost of cortisol.

The hormone cortisol alters our insulin level, since it drops our blood sugar level. This makes us crave sugar and other fat-intensive and unhealthy foods. We seek to replenish our suddenly depleted resources of blood sugar. Our body is responding to this sudden physiological change. Therefore, the stress we feel not only changes our feeling that we need to eat, but it also makes us feel that we need to eat specifically unhealthy food to fulfill this particular void. Stress changes our quantity and quality of food intake simultaneously, through an intense chemical change. Cortisol also reduces our metabolic rate. This means that we digest all of these unhealthy foods more slowly, increasing our fat we hold onto.

From our ancestry, our bodies automatically store belly fat to keep reserves for when we did not have enough food in nature. However, today, this function is less necessary for most people. Most people in developed countries have enough food to eat everyday. However, the way stress engages in our body adds to this level of ‘storage’ fat. Since this fat is being stored from the stress and fear we are experiencing, it adds directly to our excess fat. This kind of fat is harder to get rid of, decreases blood flow, which can cause additional inflammation, increasing our likelihood of diabetic issues. This fat is also not visually pleasing, though many people wonder about the origin of it.

Stress profoundly affects our appetite and increases our hunger for less healthy foods. However, it also impacts other regards of our physical health. Stress alters our regular and healthy sleep patterns. When we are stressed, our worries make it difficult to sleep, which is central to our healthy metabolism and weight. The chemicals gherkin and leptin are altered when we have an unhealthy sleep cycle.

There are some simple ways to reduce gaining weight during stressful times. Of course, the most effective way to reduce this is to find ways to cope with and avoid stressful situations in our daily life. However, we will all experience stress on certain levels in our lives, regardless of how well we may come to manage our lives. Continuing to exercise during times of stress may seem counterintuitive. We may want to focus only on the issues that are stressing us, giving all of our time to these problems until we can solve them. But continuing to maintain our exercise regiment will have a powerful impact on our ability to reduce weight gain in the context of stressful times. Additionally, we should seek to eat slowly and consciously. With stress, we want to eat large amounts of unhealthy foods, as explained above. It becomes all the more important to be mindful and consume consciously in this period of time. We should also strive to keep doing activities that we enjoy and that will take our minds off the stress we are facing. This will help our mental, and therefore physical health. Especially in times of stress, it is important to remain alert to what our bodies are telling us. Keeping a journal and documenting our eating, stress, and workout habits, can be a useful tool to cope with issues when we are experiencing a tough time. Ultimately, we are in control of our lives and can consciously prevent too much stress and the unhealthy weight gain that can result from it.

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