Written on May 22, 2023 by Theresa Vuskovich, DMD. 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.
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While stress is often linked to weight gain, stress can also cause weight loss. Stress, whether at work or at home, can negatively affect your appetite. In this article, you will learn how stress affects the body and the answer to "Can stress cause weight loss?"
Stress can trigger the flight-or-fight response and affect appetite-regulating hormones
The flight-or-fight response is the activation of your sympathetic nervous system.[1,2] When experiencing acute stress, your body activates the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary system. Upon activation, the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are released. Research has shown that noradrenaline can suppress your appetite during acute stress. Aside from suppressing appetite, the fight or flight response can also raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate, and decrease blood flow to other vital organs.
While acute stress activates the sympathetic-adrenal medullary, chronic stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, producing cortisol. Cortisol is referred to as the stress hormone and can increase your appetite. Chronic stress often causes overeating rather than a loss of appetite, but chronic stress can still lead to weight loss through a hormone called leptin.
Leptin is called the satiety hormone for its ability to suppress appetite and increase energy expenditure.[2,3] Leptin works by activating leptin receptors on specific neurons in the brain. During acute stress, your body may produce more leptin, reducing appetite.
Leptin is produced by adipose (fat) cells.[3,4] The more adipose cells you have, the higher your leptin levels. While elevated leptin levels can suppress your appetite, prolonged elevated levels may lead to leptin resistance. Leptin resistance is associated with an increased risk of obesity.
Stress affects everyone differently, resulting in a variety of physiological responses. Staying mindful of your stress is essential for minimizing the risk of stress-related illnesses, such as high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
Other reasons for unexplained weight loss
If you are experiencing unexplained weight loss, talking to a healthcare provider is essential. It is generally recommended that you get evaluated if you lose more than 5% of your body weight in 6-12 months. Unexplained weight loss can indicate a serious medical condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, reasons for unexplained weight loss include:
- Memory loss (dementia)
- Poor oral health
- Depression and anxiety
- Stroke or neurological disorder history
- Hyperthyroidism (excess levels of thyroid hormones)
- Addison's disease (adrenal insufficiency)
- Peptic ulcers
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis
Often, unexplained weight loss cannot be determined by a single cause; rather, it involves a number of factors. Let your healthcare provider know about all physical, psychological, and social stressors you are experiencing.
Ways to manage stress and weight loss
Each individual manages stress and stress-induced weight loss in a unique way. As a part of our daily lives, we are constantly faced with stress, requiring us to adapt and manage it. You can manage stress and weight loss by following these tips:
- Set reminders to eat: If you are experiencing a loss of appetite or weight loss, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to eat. Choose calorically dense foods such as peanut butter to ensure you get enough calories during your day.
- Choose healthy foods: During stressful times, reaching for sugary drinks or snacks may seem easier than eating vegetables and fruits. However, these processed foods can negatively affect your stress and anxiety. Avoid foods with unhealthy fats, salts, and added sugars.
- Avoid caffeine: Caffeine can increase your anxiety, negatively impacting your appetite. Choose non-caffeine, unsweetened herbal teas instead.
- Consume alcohol in moderation: Avoid drinking alcohol or drink in moderation. Moderation is two drinks per day for men and one for women.
- Consider a digital detox: You can relax and recover from stressful periods by removing some of your digital stressors. Disconnect from your phone, TV, and computer screens and limit your exposure to news.
- Try a low-impact physical activity: Walking and yoga are low-impact exercises that can help you relax and manage your stress.
- Get enough sleep: Adults need seven or more hours of sleep each night.
- Avoid nicotine: While some people use smoking to relax, nicotine can worsen anxiety. It's best to avoid vaping and other tobacco products when you are stressed.
- Connect with friends: Stress can cause people to isolate themselves, but sharing your feelings with people you can trust can be an excellent way to manage stress.
- Don't neglect your health: It's easy to overlook regular healthcare appointments when stressed. Ensure you keep up with your regular health appointments.
Manage your weight via Everlywell
You can access fast, easy telehealth weight loss visits and discuss your symptoms with a licensed nurse practitioner via Everlywell. During your telehealth visit, your healthcare provider can address your symptoms with the right tests, prescriptions, or lifestyle recommendations. If you are experiencing stress and stress-induced weight loss, your healthcare provider can guide you back to better health.
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- Schnepper R, Georgii C, Eichin K, et al. Fight, Flight, - Or Grab a Bite! Trait Emotional and Restrained Eating Style Predicts Food Cue Responding Under Negative Emotions. Front Behav Neurosci. 2020;14:91. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7283754/. Published 2020 Jun 3. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00091.
- Ans AH, Anjum I, Satija V, et al. Neurohormonal regulation of appetite and its relationship with stress: A mini literature review. Cureus. 2018;10(7). doi:10.7759/cureus.3032. https://www.cureus.com/articles/13630-neurohormonal-regulation-of-appetite-and-its-relationship-with-stress-a-mini-literature-review#!/.
- Rahmouni K. Leptin-Induced Sympathetic Nerve Activation: Signaling Mechanisms and Cardiovascular Consequences in Obesity. Curr Hypertens Rev. 2010;6(2):104-209. doi:10.2174/157340210791170994. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3090157.
- Tomiyama AJ, Schamarek I, Lustig RH, et al. Leptin concentrations in response to acute stress predict subsequent intake of comfort foods. Physiol Behav. 2012;107(1):34-39. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.04.021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3409346/.
- Leptin: What it is, function & levels. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22446-leptin. Accessed May 29, 2023.
- Unexplained weight loss. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/unexplained-weight-loss/basics/definition/sym-20050700. Published August 17, 2022. Accessed May 29, 2023.
- Coping with stress. Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/cope-with-stress/index.html. Published April 28, 2023. Accessed May 29, 2023.