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This is an interesting question. Some people do tend to gain weight when under stress, but the cause of this weight gain is likely a mix of hormonal and psychological factors. The body has a system of hormonal checks and balances that may actually promote weight gain when you're stressed out.
The so-called "stress hormone" cortisol is released in the body during times of stress along with the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine that constitute the "fight or flight" response to a perceived threat. Following the stressful or threatening event, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels return to normal while cortisol levels can remain elevated over a longer time period. In fact, cortisol levels can remain persistently elevated in the body when a person is subjected to chronic stress.
Cortisol has many actions in the body, and one ultimate goal of cortisol secretion is the provision of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, in addition to stimulating insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions is an increase in appetite. Therefore, chronic stress, or poorly managed stress, may lead to elevated cortisol levels that stimulate your appetite, with the end result being weight gain or difficulty losing unwanted pounds.
Cortisol not only promotes weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Researchers have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as "toxic fat," since abdominal fat deposition is strongly correlated with the development of cadiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.
Whether or not your stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress can vary among individuals, with some persons being innately more "reactive" to stressful events. Studies of women who tended to react to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion showed that these women also tended to eat more when under stress than women who secreted less cortisol. Another study confirmed that women who stored their excess fat in the abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips.
Experts agree that stress management is a critical part of weight-loss regimens, particularly in those who have elevated cortisol levels. Exercise is the best and fastest method for weight loss in this case, since exercise leads to the release of endorphins, which have natural stress-fighting properties and can lower cortisol levels. Activities such as yoga and meditation can also help lower your stress hormone levels. To effectively reduce elevated cortisol due to stress, lifestyle changes are essential.
In addition to possible hormonal causes, many people eat in an attempt to fulfill psychological needs when under stress, which may be another reason some people gain weight when experiencing stress.
Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine
"Obesity in adults: Overview of management"