Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

How to keep the world's woes from weighing you down

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Your job is hanging by a thread, and the credit-card bills are mounting. Your teenager wants to quit school and become a professional snowboarder. Or maybe it's the increasing tensions in the world, brought to you 24 hours a day on your TV screen, getting you down.

Regardless of the reason, stress is a way of life in the 21st century. And for some people, the effects go beyond feelings of anxiety and discomfort. For these people, stress can mean facing each day ravenously hungry -- and adding weight gain to their list of worries.

"While the immediate . . . response to acute stress can be a temporary loss of appetite, more and more we are coming to recognize that for some people, chronic stress can be tied to an increase in appetite -- and stress-induced weight gain," says Elissa Epel, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco.

The problem, she says, lies within our neuroendocrine system -- a brain-to-body connection that harkens back to evolutionary times and which helped our distant ancestors to survive. Though today the source of the stress is more likely to be an unpaid bill than a saber-toothed tiger, this system still activates a series of hormones whenever we feel threatened.

"These hormones give us the biochemical strength we need to fight or flee our stressors," Epel tells WebMD.