It’s easy to understand why poor exercise habits and overeating can lead to weight gain because both are directly related to the number of calories you eat and expend. Stress, on the other hand, manifests itself in a less tangible manner, which makes it less recognizable as a factor that can cause you to gain weight.
Both acute stress (associated with minor everyday circumstances that cause you to feel tension for a short period of time) and chronic stress (the result of constant and sometimes multiple major life stressors) have an effect on hormone levels which play an important role in everything from appetite and sleep habits to how we store fat.
“There are a couple of things that happen when we’re stressed,” says Dr. Cedric Bryant, Chief Science Officer for the American Council on Exercise. “During stressful times we release hormones that cause a sort of ‘fight or flight’ response. Adrenaline boosts energy and can help decrease appetite at first, but then there are hormones like cortisol that are released which cause an increase appetite.”
However, Bryant also notes that research hasn’t yet proven whether overeating as a response to stress is more a result of hormone imbalances or human habit.
“It isn’t perfectly clear if the response is driven by hormones or by habit. It’s probably more a combination of both,” he says. “Of course there’s the notion of turning to comfort foods when we’re stressed, but some of that is due to habit.”
In addition to an increase in appetite and changes in hormone levels, Bryant also notes that stress can cause a change in insulin and blood sugar levels which makes the body more conditioned to store fat.
“It’s sort of a double whammy because the type of fat that’s more likely to be stored is problematic from a health standpoint,” says Bryant. “Stress signals the storage of visceral fat, which gets stored around the midsection deep within the abdominal region and around organs and is associated with an increased risk for things like insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
Regardless of whether or not it’s affecting your ability to maintain a healthy weight, if you’re constantly stressed out (according to Bryant some of the most common signs include anxiousness, irritability and lack of patience) your overall health and wellness could be in jeopardy. Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, headaches, back and neck pain, and sleep problems are all considered stress-related illnesses.
“Each individual knows when they’re getting a little tight around the collar,” says Bryant. “But the great thing is that there are many things you can do to manage or diffuse the stress.”
He says that exercise is arguably one of the best ways to reduce stress. Not only will it counteract the negative effects of stress hormones, but Bryant also notes that exercise serves as a positive distraction and helps to release feel good hormones.
See also: How Exercise Can Reduce Stress
“Exercise can play a very powerful roll in stress reduction provided that you’re not exercising too hard for too long,” says Bryant. “Overdoing it can raise stress hormones.”
His other top stress reduction tips include getting a good night’s sleep, avoiding caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol, eating healthfully and not skipping meals, and finding an effective form of relaxation like mind body exercises such as yoga or meditation, cognitive activities like crossword puzzles, or even something as simple as listening to music.