Healthcare provider explaining to patient the link between chronic stress and obesity

The link between chronic stress and obesity

Written on May 23, 2023 by Gillian (Gigi) Singer, MPH. 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.

Table of contents

Chronic stress is a well-known risk factor for a wide range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety. However, it is also linked to another significant health concern: obesity. Continue reading to explore the link between chronic stress and obesity, including the underlying mechanisms and practical steps individuals can take to mitigate their risk.

What stress does to the body

Different parts of the body respond differently to stress, and these reactions continue to have a further “domino effect” on other health outcomes.

Musculoskeletal system

Stress affects the musculoskeletal system by causing muscle tension. This tension can lead to headaches, migraines, and overall muscle soreness/pain.[1]

Respiratory system

“Stress and strong emotions can present with respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts,” says the APA.[1] For people who don’t have any sort of respiratory condition, this isn’t cause for concern, but “psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases,” like asthma or COPD.[1]

Cardiovascular system

Acute stress “causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormones—adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol,” and ongoing stress “can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels.”[1] Long-term stress increases “the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke,” and “repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system.”[1]

Endocrine system

The endocrine system produces hormones that control various bodily functions, including the body's response to stress. Stress “results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone.”[1]

Gastrointestinal system

The gut has its own nervous system that communicates with the brain and is inhabited by millions of bacteria that can influence overall health. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication and trigger gut discomfort to be felt more easily. Stress also changes gut bacteria, which in turn can affect mood. Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system and increase the risk of gut diseases.

Common effects of stress

The Mayo Clinic lists the following as common effects of stress [2]:

  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Chest pain
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Tobacco use
  • Change in sex drive
  • Irritability or anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Stomach upset
  • Sadness or depression
  • Exercising less often
  • Sleep problems

How stress responses lead to obesity

When cortisol levels remain elevated due to chronic stress, it can cause the body to store more fat, especially in the abdominal area, leading to obesity. This is because cortisol can increase insulin resistance and promote the conversion of glucose to fat, which can result in higher levels of circulating triglycerides and an increased risk of metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, chronic stress can lead to overeating and a preference for calorie-dense, high-fat foods, which can also contribute to weight gain and obesity.[3]

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Stress can cause changes in eating habits, digestion, and nutrient absorption, leading to pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. Stress affects people with chronic bowel disorders more severely due to changes in gut sensitivity, microbiota, and immune responses.[4]

Obesity is commonly associated with high blood pressure and CVD.[5]

In addition to emotional eating, chronic stress can lead to a decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentary behavior, such as watching TV or sitting at a desk for long periods.[6]

In addition to these findings, research has shown that sleep disturbances are also linked to chronic stress and obesity. Chronic stress can lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep, which disrupts the body's natural circadian rhythms and can lead to weight gain.[7]

Stress management to prevent obesity

Chronic stress can increase the risk of obesity due to hormonal changes and unhealthy behaviors. To mitigate this risk, individuals can adopt healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, which can reduce stress levels. Healthy eating habits, including consuming a balanced diet and avoiding high-calorie, high-fat foods, can also help. Identifying triggers for emotional eating and finding alternative ways to manage stress, such as engaging in creative or relaxing activities, is also recommended. By taking these steps, individuals can reduce their risk of obesity and related health problems and improve their overall well-being.[8,9]

To discuss weight management online with a healthcare provider, schedule an appointment via Everlywell's telehealth option.

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  1. American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body. Accessed May 11, 2023.
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Mayo Clinic. Published August 20, 2021. Accessed May 11, 2023.
  3. Myers A. Cortisol and weight gain: How to manage stress and your waistline. Amy Myers MD. Published November 6, 2020. Accessed May 11, 2023.
  4. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011;62(6):591-599.
  5. Akil L, Ahmad HA. Relationships between obesity and cardiovascular diseases in four southern states and Colorado. J Health Care Poor Underserved. 2011;22(4 Suppl):61-72. doi:10.1353/hpu.2011.0166.
  6. Chandola T, Britton A, Brunner E, et al. Work stress and coronary heart disease: what are the mechanisms? Eur Heart J. 2008;29(5):640-648. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehm584.
  7. Greer SM, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 2013;4:2259. doi:10.1038/ncomms3259.
  8. Cohen-Katz J, Wiley SD, Capuano T, Baker DM, Kimmel S, Shapiro S. The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on nurse stress and burnout, Part II: A quantitative and qualitative study [published correction appears in Holist Nurs Pract. 2005 Mar-Apr;19(2):78. Kimmel, Sharon [added]]. Holist Nurs Pract. 2005;19(1):26-35. doi:10.1097/00004650-200501000-00008.
  9. Dishman RK, Berthoud HR, Booth FW, et al. Neurobiology of exercise. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2006;14(3):345-356. doi:10.1038/oby.2006.46.
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