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.
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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.
Different parts of the body respond differently to stress, and these reactions continue to have a further “domino effect” on other health outcomes.
Stress affects the musculoskeletal system by causing muscle tension. This tension can lead to headaches, migraines, and overall muscle soreness/pain.
“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. 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.
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following as common effects of stress :
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.
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.
Obesity is commonly associated with high blood pressure and CVD.
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.
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.
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]
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