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Lighten up: Decoding the link between stress and weight gain
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Lighten up: Decoding the link between stress and weight gain

Elevated cortisol levels resulting from stress can disrupt one’s sleep and lead to the development of poor eating habits, setting the stage for weight gain

Prolonged stress can contribute to weight gain by retaining fat instead of burning it

Stress has become an omnipresent force in the current fast-paced world. Besides affecting our mental health, it can adversely impact our physical well-being as well — weight gain being one of the manifestations. Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which can increase appetite and give rise to cravings, especially for sugary and fat-rich foods. This can lead to overeating, causing one to gain weight. Besides a regular eating and sleeping pattern, meditation, breathing exercises and yoga can help manage stress, which in turn can prevent weight gain, say experts.

How stress causes weight gain

Dr Naveen Jayaram, consultant psychiatrist, Carewell Clinic, Bangalore, says the fight or flight response of the body kicks in when someone is stressed or worried, increasing cortisol levels. Chronically elevated cortisol levels due to prolonged stress alter one’s metabolism, causing fat retention instead of fat loss; it also leads to insulin resistance, which can result in weight gain. Apart from professional or personal issues, certain environmental factors can trigger stress as well. “Pollution, varying weather conditions, inadequate hydration, etc., can also contribute to stress,” he shares.

How cortisol impacts appetite and sleep

The vicious cycle of stress, disrupted sleep and poor eating habits increases the risk of weight gain. High cortisol levels stimulate fat and carbohydrate metabolism, increasing one’s appetite and making them crave fatty, sweet and salty foods. Speaking about how food is considered a stress buster, Dr Praveen Naidu, consultant endocrinologist, Manipal Hospital, Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, explains, “The body produces feel-good hormones like dopamine when you eat food, providing comfort during times of stress. Unfortunately, this also increases blood glucose levels, and for an individual with diabetes, their condition could worsen.”

“Stress can also lead to daytime sleep,” says Dr Jayaram. When you are stressed, you might sleep more, be drowsy during the day and develop irregular eating habits. For someone with a normal circadian rhythm, their cortisol levels drop to almost zero when they sleep and peak as they are about to wake up, preparing the body for the next day. “If someone is continuously stressed and not sleeping well, their cortisol levels could spike at night as well. This leads to an unhealthy equilibrium of stress hormones and causes high blood pressure,” explains Dr Naidu.

Ways to deal with stress

Managing stress is an important aspect of preventing or dealing with conditions like diabetes, obesity, hypertension and insomnia. Addressing stress can positively impact one’s mental well-being, which in turn can prevent weight gain resulting from it.

Dr Jayaram highlights the importance of recognizing the triggers of stress and being aware of how they affect you. He also advises checking other biochemical parameters like vitamin and thyroid hormone levels to determine if they’re indirectly contributing to stress. “One should practice mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises to calm their mind; they must also have a healthy diet and adopt regular eating and sleeping patterns to manage stress,” he adds.

“Yoga or any other form of exercise could help, as they release endorphins that aid in good sleep,” says Dr Naidu. According to him, people can also prevent stress by planning their day, which can help prevent as many surprises as possible.

Treatment

The treatment approach, whether medication or therapy, will vary depending on the individual. “The treatment is not the same for everyone, as stress manifests differently depending on one’s metabolism and genetic makeup,” says Dr Jayaram. In terms of diet, opting for more natural foods like green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, green tea, chamomile tea, etc., instead of fatty and sugary ones can help prevent weight gain, he adds.

“People with irregular sleeping and eating habits, as well as those who are not well-trained to control or deal with their emotions, can have abnormally high cortisol levels that can cause physical problems in the long term,” says Dr Naidu. Hence, proper sleep, stress management and work-life balance are important. He adds that if someone isn’t able to manage stress induced by personal, financial or work-related problems, they should reach out to psychiatrists or mental health professionals for help. “There are many support groups these days, and people dealing with extreme stress should not hesitate to reach out to them,” he advises.

Takeaways

  • Stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which can increase one’s appetite, leading to cravings for fatty or sugary foods.
  • Chronically elevated cortisol levels resulting from prolonged stress can cause the body to retain fat instead of burning it. In addition, it also gives rise to insulin resistance, setting the stage for weight gain.
  • Sleep disruptions induced by stress can cause a spike in cortisol levels at night, leading to irregular eating habits that can lead to weight gain over time.
  • Meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises can help manage stress. Those unable to deal with stress induced by personal, financial or work-related problems should reach out to psychiatrists or mental health professionals for help.

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