Can Long-Term Stress Make You Gain Weight? Study Finds a Link

Don't let your healthy habits slide when the pressure is on

You probably know how stress can affect your mood and often your eating choices — comfort food, anyone? — but can long-term stress actually make us gain weight? A recent study says it may be so.

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Researchers from University College London analyzed longitudinal health data from more than 2,500 men and women older than age 54, 98 percent of whom were white and British. The researchers looked at possible connections between cortisol and body weight.

Cortisol is a hormone that your body releases when you’re feeling physical or psychological stress. The hormone raises your blood pressure and blood sugar and can suppress the immune system.

The researchers used the recordings of height, weight, and waist circumference to assess weight status, and measured cortisol by concentrations of the hormone in hair strands from the scalp. The results showed a connection between the stress hormone cortisol and being overweight.

Mixed results in previous studies

The researchers noted that previously, a few small studies have assessed cortisol in scalp hair in relation to body-mass index (BMI) numbers, and their results have been mixed. A handful have found a link between the two, the study says, suggesting that increased cortisol may play a role in higher BMI.

However, the researchers wrote, it’s important to note the possibility of an opposite effect between cortisol and being overweight. Persistent obesity could create elevated cortisol levels, possibly through altered metabolism.

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More research is needed, the researchers say, to better understand the connection and why the two may be linked.

Fluctuating levels

Higher cortisol levels were not just associated with being overweight — they also were associated with carrying that extra poundage in the waist, the so-called visceral fat, says psychologist Leslie Heinberg, PhD. Dr. Heinberg, who is Director of Behavioral Services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic, did not take part in the study.

“People who had higher BMIs had higher levels of cortisol, and people who had higher waist circumference, or carrying their weight in the middle, also had that higher level of cortisol,” Dr. Heinberg says.

The study’s conclusions are limited because researchers only looked at two months of cortisol data and, Dr. Heinberg says, cortisol levels can fluctuate greatly throughout the course of the day.

Back when humans had to run away from wild animals and other serious environmental threats, a temporary increase in cortisol was a useful mechanism, Dr. Heinberg says. Today, however, stress is more long-term, she says, and over time it can wreak havoc on our bodies.

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The link between stress and weight gain is real, mainly because healthy habits like getting enough sleep, exercising and eating a healthy diet are harder to maintain when you feel like you’re maxed out emotionally, she says.

Stay on top of stress

The study is a good reminder to not let your health become a lesser priority when you’re feeling increased stress, Dr. Heinberg says.

“Things like exercise, meditation, mindfulness exercises, relaxation — those are ways that we can work towards good stress management, as well as good weight management,” Dr. Heinberg says. 

There really  is no way to know from the research if the stress experienced by the participants was a result of being overweight, or if being overweight was a result of stress, Dr. Heinberg says. She believes it is most likely a combination of the two.

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