Effects of Stress on Weight Gain

By MJ and Gabrielle Neuhaus-Harsh

If you have consulted with a professional to determine how to eat well and exercise appropriately, and you are not seeing your desired results after at least 8 weeks of sticking to your plan, it could be stress that is inhibiting you from reaching your goals! We will dive into the potential culprit, and we will provide ways of coping with your stress. 


Let’s start by talking about cortisol. Cortisol plays a big part in your fight-or-flight response, and when this hormone is released, it gives the body a burst of energy to deal with the perceived emergency situation. This explains how that can be helpful in a dangerous situation, or while we are doing an intense workout. 

There are also negative effects from too much cortisol in the body. High levels ofcortisol can cause higher insulin levels, resulting in blood sugar drops, which will make you crave sugary, carb-heavy foods. This can become a viscous cycle if non-nutrient-dense foods are consumed when you are stressed, because this can lead to unwanted weight gain, which will also increase stress on your body. 

If you are stuck in a cycle of stress-eating or finding yourself feeling anxious often, this could be why you are gaining weight or having trouble losing weight. Below are common symptoms related to too much and too little cortisol in the body. For both of these issues, we recommend trying some relaxation strategies first, and if that does not work after a few weeks, consult your doctor. 

Symptoms of too much cortisol include:

  •             weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face
  •             thin and fragile skin that is slow to heal
  •             acne
  •             for women, facial hair and irregular menstrual periods

Symptoms of not enough cortisol include:

  •             continual tiredness
  •             nausea and vomiting
  •             weight loss
  •             muscle weakness
  •             pain in the abdomen

Ways to Relax

Now that we have figured out what may be causing the weight gain and the causes of the stress, we can work to remedy this problem. 

The first step is to acknowledge the problem, and identify the main causes of stress in your life. Is it school, work, family, relationships, or food? Not all of these can be avoided, and some stress in our lives is normal, but it is important to know your stress threshold before it starts negatively impacting your life. Then you must develop coping strategies that noticeably reduce your daily stress. 

There are many different relaxation strategies we have discovered that work well for ourselves and our clients. If you are too overwhelmed, learn to say “no” to tasks that overload your plate. Once you become more efficient or get caught up on your other projects, then you can take on more work. We have also found yoga, meditation, a workout class, lifting heavy weights, puzzles, running, reading, traveling, or baking to provide relief for our clients. These are all just suggestions, so if there is something you find refreshing and relaxing, try to include it in your day when you’re feeling anxious or stressed! 

Do not forget about the importance of sleep! We all need a sufficient amount of sleep to function optimally. Most adults need between 7-9 hours each night. As it relates to sleep, let’s talk about screen time. It is hard in today’s society, but it is also important to limit your screen time during the day, especially in the morning and before you try to sleep. 

Once you start to integrate these strategies into your routine, keep them up even when you start to feel better. It is important to prevent yourself from getting extremely stressed again, so once you find the stress management tactics that work for you, keep using them! If you have more questions on physiological responses to stress, please reach out to us!