Like sleep, stress is an often-overlooked lifestyle factor that can have a significant impact on your weight.

Whether it’s the result of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, stress-induced behaviors like emotional eating, or a combination of the two, the link between stress and weight gain is strong.

Stress increases cortisol

When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. As a result, glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. This is known as the fight or flight response.

Sugar cravings

When the perceived threat passes, your blood sugar drops leaving you craving sugary, fatty foods (i.e. comfort foods).

These foods are often highly processed and high in calories, which in turn leads to weight gain.


Stress can also make you more likely to overindulge thanks to its effect on your metabolic hormones.

One small 2014 study found that, on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This could result in an 11-pound weight gain over the course of a year.

Lean muscle mass

A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that cortisol can decrease lean muscle mass.

Since muscle burns more calories than fat, a decrease in muscle mass can make it more difficult to manage your weight.

Stress promotes unhealthy habits

Not only can stress influence your cortisol levels, it can also drive you to engage in behaviors that lead to weight gain.

Here are a few:

Emotional eating and drinking

Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but it can also cause you to eat more than you normally would.

Many people also turn to alcohol when stressed. While alcohol does provide an initial calming effect, in the long run, it makes stress worse. Alcohol can contribute to weight gain by boosting your calorie intake.

Poor sleep

Stressful life events can interfere with the hormonal processes that guide healthy sleep cycles and reduce your overall sleep quality.

Studies have also shown that not getting enough sleep at night can increase your stress levels during the day.

This is a problem because mounting evidence suggests that adequate sleep might be just as important as diet and exercise when it comes to managing your weight.

Exercising less

A 2014 review of 168 studies concluded that stress impairs our efforts to be physically active.

While exercising less may not cause weight gain directly, it does mean fewer calories burned. Fewer calories burned means more calories stored in the body as fat.

How to break the cycle of stress and weight gain

“Make exercise a priority”

“Get more sleep”

“Keep a journal”

While these tips help reduce stress, the reality is that they are much easier said than done, especially when you’re already stressed.

An alternative approach is to start by making a list of all the sources of stress in a typical day. Don’t leave out little things like your alarm clock going off in the morning or being stuck in traffic.

Next, pick one (and only one) that seems like it would be easy to address.

An example might be to stop checking email after a certain time or to prepare meals in advance so you don’t have to rush in the evenings.

When you have established a new routine move on to the next item on your list. The aim is to keep chipping away to remove as much stress from your day-to-day life as possible.

It’s not something you’ll ever be able to completely eliminate, but managing stress is essential to prevent weight gain and for good overall health.


  1. Photo by Andrew Rice on Unsplash