The Impact of Stress on Hormones and Weight Loss

Woman looking at her belly in the mirror

Some experts estimate that a whopping 75-90 percent of all doctor’s office visits are related, either directly or indirectly, to conditions caused by stress. I agree that stress is a major problem in today’s modern world, thanks to social media, long working hours, lack of physical activity, and other factors. And while stress can cause a variety of health conditions, one of the most prevalent that most people are unaware of is its impact on our hormone levels and ability to maintain a healthy weight.

A man scrolling through is phone in bed

Any source of stress placed upon the body, whether physical or emotional, triggers the production of the hormone cortisol, which is often referred to as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol is important for our survival, and when it spikes, during a fight-or-flight reaction, it’s what tells us to get out of danger, by jumping out of the way of a speeding car, for example.

The problem is that when we are under constant stress, our cortisol levels remain elevated, which then impacts numerous bodily processes, including your metabolism and emotional stability. Studies point to the fact that chronic high cortisol production is tied to ailments including anxiety, sleep disordershormonal imbalances, fertility problems, and, of course, weight gain.

When it comes to interfering with weight loss, stress can be a sneaky problem to tackle because you might not even suspect that it’s the root cause of the obstacles you’re facing. Below are five ways that chronic stress can negatively impact your quality of life, disrupt hormonal balance, and, therefore, interfere with weight loss.

1. Stress Makes it Harder to Get Good Sleep

Cortisol is a hormone related to alertness, so one of its most important jobs is to help keep us motivated, awake, and responsive to our environment. Cortisol levels are typically highest in the morning, decreasing throughout the day, and then dropping to their lowest at night, around the time we should be headed to bed.

When levels of cortisol, and other stress hormones like adrenaline, are abnormally elevated throughout the day, it can be difficult to fall or stay asleep, or you may wake up very early (about 2-4 a.m.) feeling wired but still groggy. This lack of sleep can directly impact weight maintenance, as a lack of sleep affects levels of leptin and ghrelin, the hunger hormones that dictate appetite and feelings of fullness after eating.

Woman is sitting on her bed

2. Stress Increases Cravings

It’s no surprise that many people notice that the more hectic and overwhelming their life or schedule becomes, the harder it is to stick to a healthy diet. This is especially the case when it comes to sustaining newly formed eating habits, as research shows that stress makes it more likely that you’ll resort back to older, ingrained behaviors when responding to cues and triggers in your environment.

Because stress hormones can interfere with your mood, sleep, and digestion, high stress levels commonly contribute to sugar and carbohydrate cravings. Additionally, research suggests that some people who are “high cortisol reactors” tend to consume more calories on days when they feel stressed compared to those considered “low reactors.” Due to the effect of stress on hunger, high reactors are especially likely to crave sugary foods when feeling down or overwhelmed, which has been linked to increased risk for weight gain and various health problems.

Donuts on a tray

Studies that have examined the associations between stress and eating behaviors have also found that high stress levels are an important risk factor for the development of many types of addictions, including food addictions. Thus, stress may contribute to an increased risk for obesity and other metabolic diseases that are tied to eating hyper-palatable, high-calorie foods that have rewarding, mood-boosting qualities (like those that are highly processed, high-fat, and/or high in sugar). That’s because as stress decreases levels of “happy hormones,” such as serotonin, we crave more comfort and pleasure from the release of neurotransmitters tied to rewarding (eating) experiences.

3. Stress Contributes to Digestive Disorders

Stress is one of the leading causes of digestive complaints and disorders, including constipation or diarrhea (both commonly associated with having “IBS”), acid reflux, and intolerances to FODMAP foods. That’s because stress can increase inflammation, which can damage tissue in the gastrointestinal tract, thus interfering with proper nutrient absorption and increasing many other symptoms tied to leaky gut syndrome.

A man is putting his hands on his stomach

Not only will you not feel your best when dealing with indigestion, but all of these problems can make it tough to continue eating a variety of high-fiber, whole foods, which are critical for healthy weight loss. Additionally, lacking certain nutrients (due to malabsorption) might ramp up your appetite in an attempt for your body to get the vitamins and minerals it needs.

And, of course, overeating due to stress can also cause digestive discomfort. Studies have found that increased stress hormones can disturb signals received via the appetite hormones which alert you when it’s time to eat and help guide how much you consume. Recent research suggests ghrelin secretion is “intensely responsive to both acute and chronic stress.”

4. Stress Makes it Difficult to Stay Active

While it’s possible to lose some weight simply by eating a healthier diet, staying active is usually essential for weight maintenance, feeling fully confident in your body, and maintaining overall health as you age. Because stress increases inflammation and weakens the immune system, it can also contribute to symptoms that interfere with sustaining an active lifestyle—like lack of energy, slowed workout recovery, frequent illness, and the development of pain, soreness and/or stiffness in your muscles and joints.

Man sitting in front of his laptop rubbing his eyes

5. Stress Can Lead to Brain-fog, Moodiness & Low Willpower

One of cortisol’s roles is to channel glucose in the blood (obtained from sources of carbohydrates in the diet) to your muscles in order to deal with perceived threats or sources of stress. When we are under constant stress and glucose is being diverted to address these potential threats, this leaves less energy, or fuel, for brain activity and mood stabilization.

Studies have found that hormonal changes due to stress can negatively affect your ability to access memories, prevent you from creating new ones, and decrease your ability to form new, healthier habits. While stressed, you’re also more likely to revert to older habits at the expense of engaging in goal-directed behaviors. This can block your ability to start associating exercise and/or a healthy diet with improvements in your mood and well-being, leaving you much less motivated to keep putting in the necessary effort.

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Dr. Josh Axe Dr. Josh Axe is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion for helping people get well using food as medicine. View all posts by Dr. Josh Axe »

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