Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on July 10, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
“Can stress cause weight gain?” If that’s a question that’s been on your mind, you’ve come to the right place. Here, you’ll discover how stress affects weight, helpful tips for stress management, and more—so continue reading.
There are several ways stress can impact your weight. When you’re stressed, you might be more prone to “emotional eating” or “stress eating,” which often involves consuming unhealthful, calorie-rich foods. If you experience ongoing, chronic stress, this may cause you to frequently turn to these foods—which can contribute to weight gain over time.
Chronic stress also leads to consistently elevated levels of cortisol. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” because your body releases more of it into the bloodstream when you’re under psychological or physical stress. Cortisol can raise your blood pressure, your blood sugar, and also impact your immune system. Studies have shown that high cortisol levels are associated with being overweight and having more visceral fat (fat that’s located around the abdomen).
When you’re feeling stressed, you might be less likely to go for a long walk or venture to your favorite yoga class. This is because stress tends to give us that feeling of being emotionally tapped out. When we feel this way, it’s harder to exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep. Learning how to effectively manage stress is a great step toward increasing your overall well-being, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and making unwanted weight gain less likely.
Here are some stress management tips that may help—and remember: everyone responds differently to stress, so the key is to find out the best ways to manage yours.
Take note of the type of foods you reach for when you’re stressed. Ask yourself why you’re inclined to eat that particular food—is it hunger or stress? If you’re often tempted by “junk food” when you’re stressed, try to keep these foods out of the house or office. It’s easier to follow a healthy eating routine when temptation doesn’t lurk in the kitchen pantry.
Some people who experience stress keep a record of their food intake during stressful times. Doing so can help you recognize unhelpful eating patterns—like 1 PM soda breaks or after-dinner potato chips—so you can overcome them.
When you’re trying to manage stress, it’s best not to skip meals. Skipping meals can lead to overeating later on in the day—and might make you reach for a more convenient, but less healthful, eating option. If you find skipping breakfast is easy during times of stress, work toward a meal plan to help you stick to a healthy eating routine. Overnight oats, pre-made smoothies, and veggie egg bakes are all great choices.
Exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress. Regular physical activity can cause endorphins to kick in—hormones which can help keep you feeling happy and stress-free.
Deep breathing, meditation, stretching, and massages are all good relaxation methods. Some people also find that their stress level and anxiety diminish with mellow music, journaling, or connecting with friends and family members.
Lack of sleep can cause stress to rise as you attempt to grapple daily challenges while feeling fatigued. For this reason, ensuring you’re consistently getting enough quality sleep—by practicing good sleep hygiene, for example—can be a helpful way to minimize stress.
There are many possible reasons why someone might experience weight gain. For that reason, it’s a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider to find out more about possible causes that are relevant to you.
You may also be interested in checking your cortisol levels to learn if you could be experiencing chronic stress.
1. Block JP, He Y, Zaslavsky AM, Ding L, Ayanian JZ. Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2009;170(2):181-192. doi:10.1093/aje/kwp104
2. Jackson SE, Kirschbaum C, Steptoe A. Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population-based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017;25(3):539-544. doi:10.1002/oby.21733
3. Relaxation techniques. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 10, 2020.