How Stress and Anxiety Can Cause Weight Loss (and Weight Gain)
Stress, Anxiety, and Body Composition: What's the Connection?
For some people, food is a source of comfort when life gets crazy; for others, the idea of eating is literally sickening when stress and anxiety are rampant. Needless to say, there is a patent connection between stress, anxiety, and weight loss (or weight gain) .
It’s not uncommon to see someone gain or lose as much as 20 to 30 lbs in just a few months when they are stressed out and anxious. Even worse, stress often leads to a lack of motivation and doing less of the things you enjoy.
But stress is an essential biological response for survival. (The same can be said for anxiety.) And let's be honest: life gets stressful. It's not always practical to avoid stress-inducing situations.
Rather, it makes more sense to develop healthy stress management skills. This article will give you a better understanding of the physiology of stress and anxiety, how they can cause weight loss/weight gain, and what you can do to manage.
Stress, Anxiety, and Weight Loss: Role of the Endocrine System
Cortisol (and other glucocorticoids), glucagon, and adrenaline are the primary “stress hormones” in humans. These hormones are chemical messengers largely regulated by the adrenal glands and are secreted as a "stress response" to internal or external stressors.
However, not all stress is inherently “bad.” Stress is vital to our existence, and certain stressful events may actually feel great (which is referred to as eustress). The "bad" stress we experience is more appropriately called distress.
"Anxiety" often gets lumped in with "stress" but they are not synonymous terms. Anxiety is a fear or apprehension of future events, and distress often results from that. Therefore, anxiety can be a source of stress, but stress doesn't necessarily cause anxiety.
Below, we'll take a brief look at how stress hormones and anxiety affect weight loss.
Cortisol is the main glucocorticoid in humans. It is a steroid hormone — produced by the adrenal glands — that regulates metabolism, growth, immunity, and cognitive performance.
Cortisol is considered the most potent stress hormone since it strongly increases muscle protein breakdown (i.e., it acts as a catabolic hormone metabolically) . Contrary to anabolic hormones like testosterone, catabolic hormones break down body tissues and substrates for energy production.
That being said, cortisol is also an essential hormone to sustain life; it's part of the reason you jump out of bed when your alarm goes off in the morning. Cortisol is also what keeps you going when you’re exhausted and deprived of nourishment. And since it's a catabolic hormone, cortisol is indeed important for burning body fat.
As with any other hormone, too much (or too little) cortisol can cause health issues. People with anxiety tend to produce excessive amounts of cortisol, leading to rapid weight loss (especially if they don't continue eating enough).
The stress hormone glucagon comes from the pancreas and works inverse to insulin. As you may know, insulin is a storage (anabolic) hormone that helps shuttle glucose into cells.
Thus, glucagon does the opposite of insulin and stimulates glucose release from tissues into the bloodstream when blood sugar levels are low. (Note that low blood sugar is a form of stress.)
The final stress hormone to discuss is adrenaline/epinephrine (also known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone). Adrenaline is a catecholamine synthesized throughout the central nervous system and adrenal glands.
Catecholamines have many roles in the human body, notably regulating emotions, motor control, cognitive function, and the endocrine system. Adrenaline stimulates glycogen breakdown (much like cortisol and glucagon) and also increases heart rate.
Yet, adrenaline is more often than not a "positive" stress hormone that psychs us up and gets us excited to do things. The catch is that excess adrenaline production can interfere with our ability to relax and induce more anxiety.
If you constantly feel on edge due to "adrenaline dumps," a calming nootropic like L-theanine can help you relax and focus. Also, be wary that coffee (caffeine) increases adrenaline and cortisol production. Drinking too much coffee/caffeine can undoubtedly exacerbate stress and anxiety.
Stress and Weight Loss/Weight Gain
Stress hormones can counteract the feel-good effects of neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA. Consequently, being stressed out can reduce or increase cravings for certain foods, often things that are not-so-wholesome like sugar-loaded candy or ice cream.
In other words, when stress hormone balance is out of whack, appetite regulation will be too. The body will also be prone to storing excess calories/nutrients as body fat for long-term energy reserves.
The impact stress has on a person's eating habits can lead to unintended weight loss or weight gain. So, what can be done to remedy this problem and avoid stress-related weight loss/weight gain?
6 Tips for Reducing Stress-Related Weight Loss and Weight Gain
By this point, you may feel a little overwhelmed by the ramifications of stress (or, more properly, distress) and anxiety. Their effects on mental health are just the tip of the iceberg since a healthy mindset is imperative for just about everything in life.
Therefore, the following sections illustrate actionable measures you can take to lower stress and anxiety (and subsequent weight loss or weight gain).
1. Don’t Compare Yourself (or Your Body) to Others
We live in a world where social media enables us to constantly compare ourselves and what we look like to others. Sadly, what you see on social media is rarely an accurate reflection of reality. It does you no good for your self-esteem and body image to use a fitness influencer's Instagram pictures to gauge how you should look.
In fact, that will create an impossible standard to "live up to" because the odds are there's a lot of photo editing, touch-up, and manipulation that go into those pictures.
It's okay if you want to use social media for motivation and inspiration but refrain from judging your looks based on such content.
Moreover, just because your friend is taking every cardio class at the gym or eating a certain way and is in great shape doesn’t necessarily mean it's right for you. Fitness is a life-long journey; only you can determine what works best for your body.
2. Progress Is Progress!
Focus on making small progress every day (or every week). People often get stuck on the destination while overlooking the "now." When we spend too much time thinking about "what's next," stress and anxiety are inevitable.
Remember, anxiety is fear or apprehension over what is to come that triggers the body's fight-or-flight response. Stress is the result of that response. When you turn your attention to the strides you're making within a shorter timeframe, you'll worry less about the future and more about living in the moment.
A good way to keep track of body composition improvements is by taking progress pictures every week. You can also use the scale to measure progress, but your body weight isn’t the only variable you should track.
When you lose weight due to stress and anxiety, chances are it's not going to be "healthy weight loss" because depriving yourself of food will increase muscle protein breakdown. In other words, you'll be losing a lot of lean body mass but not so much body fat. Thus, it's best to use a combination of progress pictures and body weight measurements.
As soon as your feet hit the ground in the morning, drink a glass of water (before eating breakfast). Water is crucial for keeping stress and anxiety in check and regulating your appetite. And, of course, it’s devoid of calories.
Don’t forget to keep a water bottle nearby throughout the day as well. As a rule-of-thumb, try to consume roughly one ounce of water for every kilogram you weigh (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds).
For example, a 130-lb female should aim for about 60 oz of water spread throughout the day. Highly active individuals may require twice as much due to sweating. Supplementing with electrolytes can also help ensure you stay hydrated.
4. Embrace Rest Days
If you tend to be an overachiever, like many fitness enthusiasts, it can be hard to take a day off from the gym. But there is such a thing as exercising too much.
Rest days are ultimately when your body is recuperating and preparing for the next exercise bout. If you don't allow for proper recovery, your body will inevitably reach a point of excessive fatigue.
At such a point, your adrenal glands will not function as they normally should; in turn, this can throw stress hormones into a frenzy, making you more susceptible to overeating as a coping method.
To avoid that, give yourself at least two days off from exhaustive exercise each week. A leisurely walk outside or bike ride through the park are great options to keep active without stressing your adrenal glands.
And don't forget to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
5. Food Is Medicine: Don't Starve Yourself
Let’s face it: being "angry" stinks (and it's unnecessary). Not nourishing yourself properly will leave you drained and fatigued, impeding your body’s ability to recover.
Starving yourself will increase cortisol production since a lack of nourishment is a form of stress that initiates the body's fight-or-flight response. Consequently, you risk binging/overeating in the future. That can feed into a vicious cycle of unexplained weight loss and weight gain, which leads to even more anxiety.
Try and eat at least three to four balanced meals/snacks per day, including a good amount of complete protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Our handy macronutrient calculator can help you determine how much to eat daily. (Don’t worry, it’s very intuitive no matter your experience level regarding nutrition.)
6. Prepare Meals Ahead of Time
Following suit from tips 3 and 4 above, meal prep is a great way to stop stress and anxiety from causing unintentional weight loss. Use your slower/rest days to prepare food ahead of time. Doing so will give you the peace of mind that your meals are all portioned out and ready to go for the week ahead.
Meal prepping will prevent stress-related overeating when you're at home and ensure you don't forget to eat during those hectic on-the-go days.
Mental Health and Losing Weight
If there’s one salient takeaway from this article, it’s that stress and anxiety can cause weight loss (and weight gain) through several insidious mechanisms. Everything starts in your mind, so mental health and losing weight are closely intertwined. It's only natural that anxiety disorders and stress-related conditions will throw your body out of rhythm and disrupt eating habits.
Moreover, chronic stress and anxiety often lead to a lack of motivation to stick to your fitness goals and hit the gym. By the same token, when you’re feeling good mentally and know how to reduce stress (and work through it), your appetite regulation, well-being, and body composition will improve dramatically. As the great hip-hop artist Ice Cube would say, "Get your mind right; get your grind right."