For many people, stress can have a direct impact on their weight. Whether it causes weight loss or weight gain can vary from person to person — and even situation to situation.
In some cases, stress may lead to missed meals and poor food choices. For others, stress may cause them to completely lose the desire to eat. Oftentimes, this change is only temporary. Your weight may return to normal once the stressor has passed.
Read on to learn how stress can disrupt your body’s internal functioning, how to manage stress-related weight loss, and when to see a doctor about your symptoms.
Stress can cause more than just unexpected weight loss. Other symptoms of stress include:
- aches and pains
- tense muscles
- mood changes
- difficulty falling or staying asleep
- difficulty with short-term memory
- increased heart rate
- decreased sex drive
When you’re stressed, you may engage in different behaviors than usual, like working through lunch or staying up late to meet an important deadline. These disruptions can worsen your body’s internal reaction to stress.
Your body’s “fight or flight” response can speed up your metabolism
When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Also known as the “acute stress response,” this physiological mechanism tells your body it must respond to a perceived threat.
Your body readies itself by releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares your body for vigorous activity, but it can also minimize your desire to eat.
Meanwhile, cortisol signals for your body to temporarily suppress functions that are nonessential during a crisis. This includes your digestive, immune, and reproductive system responses.
Hyperstimulation can lead to gastrointestinal distress
Your body slows digestion during the “fight or flight” response so it can focus on how to respond to the stressor.
This can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, such as:
- stomach pain
Chronic stress can amplify these symptoms and result in other underlying conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome.
These changes to your digestive system may cause you to eat less, subsequently losing weight.
You may not feel the desire to eat
The all-consuming power of stress may leave you unable to think about anything else. This may affect your eating habits. You may not feel hungry or may forget to eat altogether when experiencing stress, leading to weight loss.
Hyperstimulation can affect your body’s ability to process and absorb the nutrients
When you’re stressed, your body processes food differently. Stress affects your vagus nerve, which affects how your body digests, absorbs, and metabolizes food. This disruption may result in unwanted inflammation.
Nervous movement burns calories
Some people use physical activity to work through stress. Although an exercise-fueled endorphin rush can reduce your stress, engaging in more physical activity than normal could result in unexpected weight loss.
Sometimes stress triggers unconscious movement, like foot tapping or finger clicking. These tics may help your body process your feelings, but they also burn calories.
Sleep disruption affects cortisol production
Stress can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. It can also affect the quality of the sleep you do get, leading you to feel sluggish and fatigued. These disruptions can affect cortisol production, which can affect your metabolism. Your eating habits may also be impacted.
Although dropping a pound or two typically isn’t cause for concern, unexpected or undesired weight loss takes a toll on your body.
See a doctor or other healthcare professional if you’ve lost five percent or more of your overall body weight in any 6- to 12-month period.
You should also see a doctor if you:
- are losing weight without trying
- have chronic headaches
- have chest pain
- feel persistently “on edge”
- find yourself using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope
Your doctor can determine whether your symptoms are related to stress or due to another underlying condition. Whatever the cause, your provider can work with you to develop healthy coping strategies and prescribe medication, if needed.
If stress has impacted your eating habits, there are steps you can take to gradually ease your way back into a routine. Maintaining a regular eating schedule can help improve your mood, boost your energy levels, and restore your immune system.
Set a reminder on your phone to trigger mealtimes
You may be too stressed to remember to eat or your body’s stressed state may alter your feelings of hunger. To avoid missing meals, set an alarm on your smartphone or computer to remind yourself to eat.
Eat something small
Sticking to a regular eating schedule helps keep your blood glucose levels in check. Even a few small bites at mealtimes can help combat stress and may minimize further mood changes.
If you can, opt for foods high in protein or fiber. Avoid unnecessary sugar and caffeine, which can spike your energy levels and later result in an energy crash.
Lean toward foods that can help improve your mood and manage stress
Skipping sweets and other treats in favor of something healthy can have a noticeable impact on the way your body feels. A good rule of thumb is to stick to whole foods, like fruits and veggies.
Some of our functional favorites:
- Oranges and carrots contain immune-boosting antioxidants.
- Leafy vegetables contain vitamin B, which helps regulate your nerves.
- Whole grains contain serotonin-boosting complex carbohydrates. Increasing your serotonin levels may have a calming effect.
- Salmon and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce stress.
- Nuts and seeds also contain stress-busting omega-3 fatty acids.
Try to avoid foods that can crash your blood sugar and make you feel worse
Although foods high in sugar can provide a quick boost of energy, the comedown is inevitable. When the sugar leaves your bloodstream, it may leave you feeling worse than before.
Foods high in fat and sodium may also make stress worse.
Try to limit or avoid the following until your stress subsides:
- fried food
- baked goods
- sugary drinks
- processed foods
Opt for a pre-made meal from your local market instead of takeout
If you aren’t in the mood to cook, consider visiting your market’s fresh food section.
Although the salad bar is a great option for vegetable-filled lunches and dinners, the hot bar can also be a healthier alternative to takeout if you want comfort food.
Some grocery stores have hot bars in the morning, too, so you can eat egg sandwiches or breakfast burritos instead of other sugar-laden options in the morning.
If you’re exercising, get into the habit of eating a snack afterward
Eating post-workout is the only way to restore the energy you burned while working up a sweat. Skipping a snack or small meal may seem harmless, but it can lead to unpleasant side effects like lightheadedness and low blood sugar.
Burning more calories than you’re consuming can also result in unexpected weight loss.
Reach from something high in protein or healthy carbs, like:
- nut butters
- trail mix
- rice cakes
- Greek yogurt
You may be able to work through minimal stress-related weight loss at home, but you should see a healthcare professional if you’ve lost more than 5 percent of your overall body weight in a short span of time.
Your doctor can help determine why stress is having such a significant impact on your weight and create a management plan suited to your needs. This may mean working with a nutritionist to develop a meal plan and speaking with a therapist about your day-to-day stressors.