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Stress and slimming - the influence of stress on eating behavior has been thoroughly researched. Read about this relationship and how stress affects body weight.

Stress and slimming- what is the relationship between them? In the first phase of stress (the "fight or flight" phase), the appetite is suppressed. However, chronic stress contributes to weight gain, emotional eating, and choosing foods high in sugar and fat. Cortisol is a hormone that has a great influence on weight gain in the event of chronic stress. Scientific research shows that people who react to everyday problems with a greater cortisol release eat more.

How does stress affect the body?

Stress is a set of non-specific reactions of the body to various harmful stimuli, i.e. stressors or, in a broader sense, to all demands made on the body. The stress reaction consists in stimulating the autonomic nervous system and the so-called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. As a result of the stimulus, various changes take place in the body, leading to adaptation to new conditions. The stress response has three phases - alert, resilient, and exhaustion.

In the alarm phase (fight or flight), the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream, blood pressure increases and the heart rate increases, sugar and free fatty acids are released into the blood, the stomach stops working and hyperhidrosis appears.

The immune phase is the body's relative adjustment to function in a stressful situation. The symptoms of the alarm reaction disappear, but the harmful excitation continues.

The stage of exhaustion occurs when the body is no longer able to adapt to continual stress. Stress resistance breaks down, physiological functions are disrupted, diseases, and in extreme cases, death.

People may respond to stress in different ways depending on their individual characteristics. Each phase of the stress response also involves a different secretion of hormones. Norepinephrine and adrenaline are released during the fight or flight stage. During chronic stress, when the body feels defeated, the hypothalamus activates, which ultimately leads to the secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands.The first phase of stress is mobilizing for a person. On the other hand, the stages of immunity and exhaustion lead to negative changes: suppression of the immune system, tissue breakdown, increased lipogenesis and fatty degeneration of internal organs.

It should be remembered that stress is not only a condition associated with unhappy work, social requirements or family problems. Stress for the body is also insufficient sleep, excessive physical activity, inadequate diet, chronic inflammation and diseases.

Stress and weight loss: why stress can cause weight gain?

Weight gain or major problems in losing weight may be symptoms of chronic stress, but stress does not always trigger weight gain. And it is not stress itself as an isolated factor that is responsible for it, but a very complicated mechanism. The causes of weight gain from chronic stress can include:

  • Fight or flight- the evolutionarily old mechanism of fight or flight during a threat still guides us in stressful situations. For our ancestors, stress was usually life-threatening and required immediate mobilization and the use of large amounts of energy. Today, stress rarely requires a physical response, but the brain thinks that we have used up energy as a result of stress and needs to be replenished. Hence the feeling of hunger in response to tension. In fact, energy expenditure remains the same, and energy intake increases.
  • Cortisol- A key reason why people exposed to chronic stress struggle to maintain a he althy weight and lose weight is cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is secreted in the event of a chronic stressor, and its excess circulating in the blood promotes the accumulation of abdominal fat around the internal organs. A 2007 study found that people with a stress response associated with high levels of cortisol eat more snacks due to their daily troubles compared to those with a low cortisol release.
  • Overeating- for many people, eating is a form of relieving emotional tension, and in the case of stress, the choice is usually fatty and sweet food. Eating meals is then not related to physiological hunger, but to emotional hunger, because specific food improves mood by influencing the secretion of opioids and dopamine. Hence we are talking about "comfort food" - consolation food. Some, living under chronic stress, also feel more hungry, and thereforethey overeat. Only in the first, sudden and short-term stage of stress does the appetite decrease. In chronic situations, stress stimulates eating more.
  • Lack of activity- stress is exhausting for many people, so they no longer have the strength for any activity. They sleep a lot, spend time at home on the couch. This makes energy expenditure lower and makes it even easier to gain weight.
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Cortisol - the hormone responsible for gaining weight

When talking about the effect of stress on body weight, cortisol is the most often mentioned. Due to advertisements of various types of cortisol lowering agents, one can get the impression that this is a harmful and unnecessary compound. Excess cortisol actually affects the body badly, but it cannot be directly accused of causing weight problems. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are the glands on the top of the kidneys. Cortisol secretion is affected by periods of hunger, food intake, exercise, sleep, agitation, and psychosocial stressors. Cortisol is secreted very irregularly in the body, but it is highest in the morning, 20-30 minutes after you wake up, and lowest in the evening. The role of cortisol is primarily to mobilize the body to produce energy. Cortisol regulates the secretion of energy depending on physiological needs, influencing the source from which it is obtained (carbohydrates, fat or protein) and its quantity. This hormone is responsible for obtaining energy from adipose tissue stores and its transport to other tissues in the event of hunger. Under high stress, cortisol can also stimulate the production of energy from proteins in the process of gluconeogenesis and accumulate fat in the abdominal cavity around the internal organs. It is precisely due to its recent functions that cortisol is considered to be one of the factors contributing to weight gain during chronic stress.

Worth knowing

How does cortisol increase appetite?

In the first phase of stress, appetite is significantly reduced because the hypothalamus suppresses the action of the corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and the release of adrenaline. However, this state changes when the fight or flight phase passes. People exposed to chronic stress experience increased secretion of cortisol, and cortisol affects the accumulation of abdominal fat and weight gain. Tissue cortisol concentration is controlled by an enzyme located in adipose tissue that converts inactivecortisone to active cortisol. Studies in visceral and subcutaneous fat have shown that this enzyme is produced in greater amounts in obesity compared to normal body weight. It has also been found that in humans, adipose tissue around internal organs contains more enzyme and 4 times more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat. Hence, at high cortisol levels, the risk of fat accumulation mainly in the abdomen increases. In animal and human studies, cortisol injections have been shown to be associated with increased appetite, sugar cravings and weight gain. Women who were stress induced under controlled conditions secreted more cortisol and ate more foods high in sugar and fat. Cortisol is believed to directly influence food choices by acting on receptors in the brain, mainly in the hypothalamus, stimulating you to eat foods high in sugar and / or fat. Cortisol also affects the appetite by influencing other compounds released during stress - CRH, leptin and neuropeptide Y. High levels of CRH and neuropeptide Y and low leptin stimulate the appetite.

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Stress and slimming - research results

1.The study, published in the journal "Obesity", looked at 2,500 men and women over the age of 54. The concentration of cortisol in their hair was analyzed. A statistically significant correlation was found between the higher concentration of cortisol in the hair and high waist circumference and BMI. The results suggest that chronic stress is associated with higher levels of obesity.

2.71 he althy women with a BMI of 25.2 ± 4.3 participated in the next experiment. Analyzes with their participation were conducted at the beginning of the academic semester and 12 weeks later during the examination session. According to the hypothesis, changes in the participants' BMI were to be dependent on the secretion of cortisol, dietary restrictions, binge eating, composure, mood and attitude to food. During the study, 40 participants gained an average weight of 2.5 kg, 19 lost an average of 1 kg and 12 retained the same weight. After 12 weeks, there was a statistically significant increase in BMI, saliva cortisol secretion, binge eating and depressionand anxiety. The change in daily cortisol secretion changed the BMI, and the level of self-control of the participants influenced the degree of dependence. The higher the woman assessed her composure, the less high cortisol influenced the increase in BMI.

Research shows that in stressful situations, 40% of people eat more, 40% eat less, and 20% do not change the amount of food they eat.

3.Psychosocial stress was found to influence weight gain in a 5-year study of 5,118 participants. Among those who maintained or increased their weight, BMI was higher by an average of 0.2 among those who rated their stress levels high. Participants who experienced two or at least three stressful life situations had a BMI that was 0.13-0.26 higher.

4.A study by Tataranni and colleagues showed that those given adrenal hormones ate significantly more than those given a placebo. In addition, during periods of increased stress, participants receiving cortisol were more likely to eat larger amounts of sweet and fatty foods.

5.A 2010 study showed that the mental tension resulting from the use of excessive dietary restrictions causes a stress response and an increase in cortisol levels.

6.In 53-year-old men, a positive correlation was found between morning cortisol levels and BMI, WHR (waist and hip circumference ratio) and abdominal circumference.

How to cope with stress-induced weight gain?

Since the most common stress relief is associated with eating foods rich in sugar and fat, knowing your problem, avoid keeping this type of food at home. For everyone, comfort food may be slightly different, so it is worth identifying the products that we use most often to improve our mood. A technique recommended to reduce stress is meditation, which is confirmed by scientific research, showing its positive effect on blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation also allows you to learn to be more focused, make informed food choices, and avoid emotional eating. Before eating, it's a good idea to ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?" Physical activity helps you cope with stress and allows you to lose weight faster, but if your cortisol levels are high, it must be a low-intensity activity. Very intense workouts are a stressor for the body and increase cortisol. To reduce stress, it is extremely important to get enough sleep and avoid contact with light in the evening hoursthe light of the TV, computer and telephone.


1. Schwarz N.A. et al., A review of weight control strategies and their effects on the regulation of hormonal balance, Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2011, doi: 10.1155 / 2011/2379322. Maglione-Garves C.A. et al., Cortisol connection: Tips on managing stress and weight, Roberts C. et al., The effects of stress on body weight: Biological and psychological predictors of change in BMI, Obesity, 2007, 15, 3045-30554. Harding J.L et al., Psychosocial Stress Is Positively Associated with Body Mass Index Gain Over 5 Years: Evidence from the Longitudinal AusDiab Study, Obesity, 2014, 22, 277-2865. Dugiel G. et al., Review of the theory of stress, Acta Scientifica Academiae Ostroviensis, Issue 1, 47-706. Why stress causes people to overeat? http://www.he alth/stress-weight-gain-study/index.html9. althy-lifestyle/stress-management/expert-answers/stress/faq-2005849710.

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