How stress impacts your appetite, weight, and health (and what to do about it)
Stress is an inevitable part of the human experience and can undoubtedly impact how we achieve our health goals. Learn about the health effects of stress and how to reclaim your wellness with simple stress management techniques in this comprehensive guide.
What is stress?
Stress is defined as a physiological or emotional response to an external source. A “stressor” is anything that generates a stress response, like a physical or mental threat to our safety, status, or well-being; an unexpected event; or a situation where our perceived or real demands exceed our resources.
Work overload, financial troubles, social pressures, being a caregiver, and even running late are all examples of stressors. These events may invoke feelings of uneasiness, doom, rumination, or worry, and may encourage us to avoid similar stress-provoking situations in the future.
Acute versus chronic stress
Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is quick and short-lived, lasting for hours or minutes—like a short burst of intense physical activity—and can benefit our health by improving cognitive function and building resilience. Chronic stress is slow and continues over an extended period of time—like consistently being short on sleep or mulling over a long-term work project. When left unchecked, chronic stress, which occurs through repeated exposure to stressful situations, can pose negative health effects. Stress has been linked to various conditions including metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer, gastric ulcers, mental health disorders, and increased susceptibility to infection.
It’s important to know that stress is individual—our unique stress response is determined by a number of factors like genetics, early life experience, environmental conditions, sex, and age. What you find to be stressful may be no sweat off of your neighbor’s back, and vice versa.
The nervous system’s role in regulating our stress response
Our response to stress is ruled by our nervous system, which originates in the brain and acts as the body’s command center. Our nervous system guides everything from our memory and senses to our stress response (among other functions).
Our nervous system can be divided into two categories: Our central nervous system (CNS), which includes our brain and spinal cord, and our peripheral nervous system (PNS), which maintains our organs and limbs. Our PNS is further divided into our sympathetic nervous system and our parasympathetic nervous system.
Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. It safeguards our survival during stressful situations by making sure we have adequate fuel (like blood sugar and fatty acids) for energy. The sympathetic nervous system works to promote alertness, motivation, and goal-directed behavior.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “rest and digest” response. It plays a role in restorative functions, like immunity and digestion, and promotes processes that heal, repair, recover, and restore our bodies.
As humans, we operate on a spectrum between these two systems—it’s essential for our long-term physical and mental wellbeing that we maintain a delicate balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.
The impact of prolonged stress on our health
In the initial stages of an acute stress response, the brain releases important neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline) that act to increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. For example, our blood vessels constrict to promote blood flow and maintain our internal temperature, our pupils dilate, and we may even begin to sweat.
The body also releases cortisol, which is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol helps us deal with the stressor at hand by making fuel like blood sugar and fatty acids available and raising blood pressure. Cortisol also downregulates other processes that aren’t necessary for immediate survival like immunity, digestion, and reproduction. Under normal conditions, cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties. In the case of chronic stress, however, cortisol can remain chronically elevated and contribute to widespread inflammation in the body.
9 effects of chronic stress on appetite, weight, metabolism & other health outcomes
You’ve probably heard that managing your stress is beneficial to your health. Here’s what happens when we’re chronically stressed.
- Stress may reduce our appetite, but only in the short term: Immediately after a stressful event, we experience appetite suppression through the release of certain hormones that allow us to focus our attention on the stressor at hand. Hours and even days following the stressful event, a different category of hormones (called glucocorticoids) rise to stimulate appetite and encourage us to eat. This biological response acts as a protective mechanism to help us get through a stressful and potentially life-threatening situation first, and replace our energy (through food) second.
- Stress increases our appetite for energy-dense foods: If our stress goes unchecked—because we don’t have stress management techniques in place or because our stressors continue—levels of glucocorticoids remain elevated. Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol can lead to chronically stimulated eating behavior, excessive weight gain, and increased fat storage, particularly in the midsection.
And it’s not just any type of food we have an increased appetite for. Stress increases our desire for palatable foods. Since we survived the stressful event, it makes sense that our biological reward-seeking response would increase our desire to eat delicious, energy-dense (high-calorie) foods.
- Chronic stress can promote abdominal fat gain, which is linked to several metabolic abnormalities and health conditions: When chronically elevated, excess levels of cortisol can promote fat storage, particularly in the abdomen and around internal organs. This specific type of fat is referred to as “visceral fat,” “abdominal adiposity,” and “abdominal obesity.” While elevated levels of cortisol lead to abdominal adiposity, abdominal fat tissue also secretes cortisol, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Increased weight circumference has been linked to various health conditions like insulin resistance, elevated triglyceride levels, high LDL-cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease in both overweight and normal weight individuals.
- Stress may impact our metabolism: Excess cortisol can interfere with the secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland, causing important hormones that govern our metabolism, like T3 and T4, to be suppressed. Decreased levels of thyroid hormones may decrease metabolic rate and lead to weight gain.
- Unchecked stress may pave the path for insulin resistance: Cortisol helps us deal with stress by making fuel (in the form of blood sugar) available. As a result, cortisol impairs the secretion of insulin (a hormone that helps to regulate our blood sugar). This action makes our cells temporarily insulin resistant. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can lead to whole-body insulin resistance which, if left unmanaged over time, may contribute to the development of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
- Long-term stress weakens our immune system, leaving us susceptible to illness, allergies, and the development of autoimmune conditions: During a stressful event, the body releases proinflammatory proteins (called cytokines) that coordinate immune responses. Long-term stress leads to high levels of glucocorticoids, which interfere with immune cell function. This leaves us with fewer defenses against illness and infection. A suppressed immune system also leads to a host of other problems including the development of food allergies, gastrointestinal issues, and increased risk of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and psoriasis.
- Stress may cause gastrointestinal distress: Digestion requires us to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system (remember the “rest and digest” system?). During stress, our sympathetic nervous system takes the driver’s seat and suppresses parasympathetic function. This may lead to impaired digestion over time including increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), impaired absorption of micronutrients (and micronutrient deficiencies), abdominal pain or discomfort, and inflammation. It makes sense then that stomach ulcers are thought to be more common during stressful times and that many individuals with gut conditions like IBS report improved symptoms through proper stress management.
- Chronic stress may impede workout performance and make it harder to build muscle: Research shows that chronic stress may prolong the amount of time it takes to recover from intense exercise in both competitive and non-competitive groups. Moreover, elevated levels of cortisol may suppress important hormones like testosterone that support the growth of lean tissue, making it harder to put on muscle.
- We may find it harder to sleep: Research shows that some individuals may experience disturbed sleep during times of stress, including reduced rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and situational insomnia. Lack of sleep may contribute to elevated levels of cortisol on the days following poor sleep and may weaken our stress response. Cue the self care!
What adds to our stress bucket?
Chronic stress is cumulative and a number of factors add to our stress load. Stressors can come from environmental, social, financial, organizational, physiological, and lifestyle factors.
Poor nutrition (i.e., a diet that is high in high-glycemic carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats, added sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, and low in fiber and micronutrients), lack of exercise/movement, a sedentary lifestyle, and lack of sleep are examples of lifestyle factors that may worsen our stress.
Additionally, many coping strategies for stress also add to our stress load. Staying up too late, relying on caffeine or alcohol, undereating, overeating, stress eating, isolating from friends and family, not spending time in nature, and engaging in perfectionist thinking may alleviate stress in the short-term only to worsen our stress down the line.
The way we think about our stress matters, too. We don’t have to be experiencing a stressor in order for our body to tap into our stress response. In fact, catastrophizing or ruminating on stressful experiences—whether real or perceived—may lead to a dysfunctional stress response that keeps our body on guard even after the stressor is gone.
13 strategies to beat stress & support total health
Stress is inevitable and while we may not be able to avoid all of our stressors, certain techniques can help ease the effects of stress, strengthen our stress response, and improve our quality of life.
- Use journaling to identify stressors and build a gratitude practice: It can be difficult to cope with our stressors when we’re unsure of what they are or where they come from. Journaling may help to identify causes of stress and/or things that worsen stressful experiences. Moreover, research shows that individuals who used journaling as part of a gratitude practice reported higher-well being, increased optimism, and decreased negative feelings.
- Understand symptoms associated with stress: Despite not always “feeling” stressed, our bodies may say otherwise. Difficulty concentrating, fatigue, reduced ability to meet demands, irritability, sleep disturbances, and physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, and gastrointestinal symptoms are all warning signs of stress. Understanding your unique symptoms may help you intervene as you sense your stress levels rising.
- Practice stress appraisal: Research shows that our perception of our stress may determine the positive or negative impact of a given stressor. Negative beliefs surrounding our stressors may promote an exaggerated or prolonged response that is likely to draw out the stressful experience. For example, traffic on your way to work may lengthen your commute, but it may also lead to finishing an episode of your favorite podcast.
- Engage in stress-busting movement: Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as the body’s natural painkillers and elevate mood—helping to clear the mind and improve emotions. Research shows that individuals who engage in regular exercise secrete less cortisol during stressful times than individuals who don’t, indicating that exercise may increase resilience and make it easier to bounce back from stress. And it doesn't take much! Even a short, 20-minute bout of activity can clear the mind and bust stress.
- Seek social support: Research shows that individuals with high levels of social support are more resilient against stressful situations and have a lower perception of stress. Social interaction can counter our fight or flight response by releasing a chemical called oxytocin, which offers anti-stress-like effects that help to reduce our blood pressure and cortisol levels.
- Spend time in nature: Various studies show that exposure to nature has a positive effect in reducing perceived and real stress, and can help to improve life outlook, confidence, and happiness. In fact, cortisol levels of individuals living in neighborhoods with more green space have been shown to be lower than individuals with little green space. Even listening to sounds of nature or looking at photos of nature may reduce sympathetic (fight or flight) activity.
- Make stress management a habit even when you’re not stressed: It can be nearly impossible to try to implement new stress relieving habits when you’re in the thick of it. Instead, focus on incorporating stress management techniques into your weekly schedule to eliminate additional brain power during stressful seasons. Sticking to your morning mindfulness routine or daily lunch break walk during stressful periods is a whole lot easier when they’re habitual.
- Examine stress eating patterns: Stress eating, also called emotional eating, involves overeating due to stress or negative emotions rather than in response to physical hunger. During chronic stress, our stress response stays “on,” encouraging the body to activate its reward system by seeking highly palatable foods and stimulating eating behavior. Research suggests that eating comfort foods also suppresses the body’s stress response and alleviates feelings of stress. It’s important to understand that stress eating is the body’s biological defense against physiological and psychological strain. Strategies for improving emotional eating patterns include practicing non-judgment and self-acceptance, identifying emotional eating triggers, preparing for stressful periods through easy-to-achieve meal prep, and eating every 3 to 4 hours to stabilize blood sugars.
- Watch caffeine intake: Small doses of caffeine can increase alertness and focus, but excess caffeine can promote increased anxiety and restlessness, leading to a heightened stress response. Caffeine also increases heart rate and blood pressure, which may be heightened under stress.
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake: While winding down with your favorite drink may help to take the edge off, drinking too much alcohol can layer on additional stress and anxiety as it interferes with the normal function of the brain and nervous system. Alcohol can also reduce REM sleep, which may exacerbate feelings of stress.
- Practice mindfulness techniques: The mind-body connection describes the communication between your thoughts and your physical sensations and research shows that mindfulness techniques can reduce stress responses, lower blood pressure, and strengthen the immune system. Diaphragmatic breathing, body scans, mindful eating, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and engaging in all five senses are examples of mindfulness techniques.
- Prioritize sleep: It’s no shock that getting adequate Z’s is essential to recovery and helps keep stress in check, but many coping mechanisms for stress—like working late or catching up on Netflix—may put sleep on the backburner. Practicing good sleep hygiene, getting adequate physical activity, and being mindful of dietary habits help to promote good sleep.
Focus on nourishment to support your body during stressful times:
Eating a balanced diet can reduce the negative effects of stress by providing your body the nutrients it needs to function and by replenishing nutrients that may be depleted during stress. A diet high in complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats like nuts, seeds and/or fatty fish, and lean sources of protein help to provide the body energy, stabilize blood sugar, support gut health, prevent cravings, and promote satiety.
- B-vitamins: Beef, chicken, eggs, fortified cereal, organ meats, and nutritional yeast are all excellent sources of vitamin B12, which assists in cortisol metabolism.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna; flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are potent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help to reduce perceived stress and support reduced increases in cortisol.
- Magnesium-rich foods: Magnesium acts on a number of neurotransmitters to promote feelings of calmness and relaxation. Research suggests a two-way relationship between stress and magnesium: stress depletes magnesium stores and insufficient magnesium may enhance the body’s susceptibility to stress. Fill up on magnesium-rich foods like spinach, pumpkin seeds, tuna, almonds, dark chocolate, avocado, non-fat yogurt, and bananas.
Supplementation for stress
While lifestyle changes and stress management techniques should be your frontline defenses, certain supplements may help to abate stress. Research suggests that supplements including Rhodiola rosea, magnesium, B vitamins, theanine (from green tea), and ashwagandha may reduce stress levels. Individuals should consult with their physician to see if certain supplements are right for them.
Stress isn’t something that we can eliminate from our daily lives, but knowing where our stressors come from, understanding how they impact our health, and practicing stress management techniques that boost our wellbeing is a great place to start..
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline via call or text at 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.