Stress and Weight Gain

Cortisol and weight

Stress seems to be a part of life now.  Just ask someone and they will tell you how stressed they are whether it is from work or home.  It can manifest in varying forms and impact our health and well-being.  Many people would know of somebody who has been through a stressful experience ie divorce, loss of a loved one and lost a lot of weight.  However, I’m finding with chronic stress clients a common consequence of their elevated stress is weight gain especially in the abdominal region.  What is the relationship between stress and weight gain and the underlying mechanisms?  Let’s shed some more light on this topic.

The Stress and Weight Gain Connection

When we are stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol.  This is often referred to as the “stress hormone”.  It is produced by the adrenal glands and helps mobilise energy reserves to cope in demanding situations.  Chronic stress can result in sustained elevated levels of cortisone.  This can throw our bodies out of equilibrium and contribute to several adverse health conditions.

Cortisol and Abdominal Fat

Cortisol plays an intricate role in our body’s response to stress such as impacting appetite regulation, metabolism and fat storage.  Research suggests a direct correlation between elevated cortisol levels and increased accumulation of abdominal fat.  Besides being unsightly, this type of fat is metabolically active and has been linked to metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.

How does Cortisol increase abdominal fat?

There are numerous physiological processes that elevated cortisol increase abdominal fat.

  1. Increased appetite and food cravings:  The appetite can be stimulated by cortisol resulting in craving food high in calories and fat.  This can lead to overeating and subsequent weight gain.
  2. Insulin Resistance:  When our cells become resistant to insulin, glucose uptake from the blood stream is reduced, resulting in more insulin being produced.  Elevate insulin levels can promote fat storage in the abdominal region.
  3. Enhanced lipogenesis:  This is the processes of fatty acid synthesis and subsequent triglyceride synthesis.  Resulting in increased fat accumulation particularly visceral fat, the fat around our organs.
  4. Redistribution of fat: Instead of fat being distributed under our skin, cortisol can promote the distribution of fat to our visceral region instead.
  5. Activation or Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL): Cortisol activates lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that facilitates the uptake of circulating triglycerides into adipose tissue for storage. Increased LPL activity in abdominal adipose tissue can lead to greater fat accumulation in this region.
  6. Decreased Lipolysis: Cortisol inhibits lipolysis, the breakdown of stored fat into fatty acids and glycerol for energy. This leads to reduced mobilization of fat stores, especially in the abdominal area, contributing to increased fat accumulation.

Practical Strategies for Stress Management and Weight Control

  • Meditation: performing regular meditation incorporating deep breathing can help reduce stress.
  • Regular exercise routine: there is plenty of research available of the benefits of regular exercise for mental health.
  • Balanced nutrition: having a balanced diet consisting of adequate protein, good sources of carbohydrates and fats can prevent large fluctuations in blood sugar levels and the associated cravings.
  • Adequate sleep: insufficient sleep can exacerbate stress levels and disrupt hormonal balance, contributing to weight gain.
  • Stress reduction techniques: this varies for everybody and could include activities such as yoga, deep breathing, getting out into nature.  But work out what works best for you!

In conclusion, yes, stress can make us gain weight, through several different ways.  The good news is there are several things you can do to help manage it.  Understanding how stress and cortisol impacts our bodies can help us to develop strategies to ensure its impact on our overall health and well-being is minimal.


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  2. Björntorp, P. (2001). Do stress reactions cause abdominal obesity and comorbidities? Obesity Reviews, 2(2), 73-86.
  3. Pasquali, R., Vicennati, V., Cacciari, M., & Pagotto, U. (2006). The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Activity in Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1083(1), 111-128.
  4. Kuo, L. E., Kitlinska, J. B., Tilan, J. U., Li, L., Baker, S. B., Johnson, M. D., … & Lee, E. W. (2007). Neuropeptide Y acts directly in the periphery on fat tissue and mediates stress-induced obesity and metabolic syndrome. Nature Medicine, 13(7), 803-811.