Stress may lead to weight loss in some people. However, in others it may lead to weight gain. This may happen as stress affects many of the body’s processes, and can lead to changes in a person’s eating habits.

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Work, finances, relationships, and life changes can all cause stress.

A person experiencing stress may begin overeating or experience a loss of appetite.

In this article, we look at how stress affects the body and weight. We also examine how to reduce stress and when to see a doctor for further care.

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Stress affects almost every area of the body. Some of the effects that it has on bodily systems and processes can cause weight loss in different ways.

Inflammation and activation of vagal nerve

Stress and poor dietary choices as a result of stress can contribute to widespread inflammation and weight loss.

This inflammation can cause activation of the vagus nerve, which influences how the gut processes and metabolizes food.

Activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response

When the body is under stress, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of epinephrine, also called adrenaline, from the adrenal glands. A rush of epinephrine activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, which prepares a person to flee or fight off an impending threat.

Epinephrine causes the heart to beat faster and breathing to speed up, which can burn calories. Additionally, it changes how the gut digests food and alters blood glucose levels.

Alteration of the HPA axis

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis controls the body’s response to stress, which affects cortisol levels.

When the body is under stress, the pituitary gland signals to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This hormone increases the body’s fuel for energy by releasing fatty acids and glucose from the liver.

Cortisol also helps regulate the body’s immune response and reduces inflammation.

Chronic stress impairs the functioning of the HPA axis, causing changes in metabolism and eating habits.

Gastrointestinal distress

Stress affects the communication between the brain and gastrointestinal (GI) system, making GI symptoms more apparent.

Stress affects all parts of the GI system, including the esophagus (food pipe), stomach, and bowel.

Stress can cause GI symptoms, such as:

These symptoms can affect a person’s eating habits, which may lead to weight loss.

Stress can also cause weight gain despite diet and exercise interventions.

Research suggests that stress can lead to:

  • poor sleep
  • increased appetite
  • cravings for unhealthful foods
  • reduced motivation to engage in physical activity

All of these factors can lead to weight gain or hamper weight loss interventions.

A person should try to keep up with their exercise routine as much as possible. Physical activity is beneficial for maintaining physical health and a moderate weight, and it is also good for the mind.

Exercise can lessen fatigue and increase overall cognitive function. It also improves sleep, elevates mood, and decreases stress. Even just 5 minutes of aerobic activity can produce a noticeable effect.

The following tips can help people maintain a diet that is good for their mental and physical health and well-being:

  • eating on a regular schedule without skipping meals
  • avoiding high glycemic foods to prevent crashes in blood sugar
  • eating plenty of fruits and vegetables for nutrients and antioxidants
  • planning meals ahead to avoid impulsive choices, such as eating fast food
  • eating a snack that provides protein and healthful fats after exercise

A person can try many different techniques to reduce stress. Strategies that may help include:

  • breathing and relaxation techniques
  • meditating
  • exercising
  • listening to music or reading a book
  • practicing time management techniques
  • getting adequate sleep
  • talking to family and friends
  • practicing mindfulness
  • doing volunteer work and helping others
  • avoiding drugs and alcohol

A person can also help keep stress under control with the foods that they eat. A person should try to incorporate the following nutrients into their diet:

A person experiencing stress should also try to get more sleep and avoid caffeine, which can worsen anxiety.

If self-help techniques do not reduce stress, it is a good idea for a person to contact their doctor for help.

A doctor may suggest behavioral therapy or medical interventions for untreated anxiety and depression.

If stress is causing a medical problem, such as high blood pressure, a person should get advice from their doctor.

A person should also contact their doctor if they experience persistent unintentional weight loss. Weight loss can be a sign of an underlying illness.

Stress-related symptoms that may indicate that a person needs to get advice from a doctor include:

  • a loss of more than 5% of body weight over 6–12 months
  • fatigue
  • poor appetite
  • vomiting often
  • fever
  • a change in bowel habits
  • using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress

Stress, especially chronic stress, can cause weight loss or weight gain due to its effects on bodily processes.

Stress affects the production of stress hormones and the GI system, which can lead to changes in appetite and metabolization.

A person can use a variety of self-help techniques to decrease stress.

If a person cannot get stress under control or experiences persistent unintentional weight loss, they should contact their doctor.