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Stress Awareness and Weight Management

A woman feeling stressed, rubbing her eyes, in front of a laptop
Aside from potentially contributing to unwanted weight gain, stress can weaken our immune systems and increase inflammation in our bodies.

Published on May 3, 2021

Read Time: Two Minutes

Did you know stress might trigger weight gain? Learn more about how stress could be affecting your weight and overall health.

Phelps Health Physician Assistant Pamela Gray, who specializes in internal medicine, discusses some ways stress can influence your overall well-being and eating habits.

What causes stress?

Many factors can contribute to stress, including but not limited to the following: a hectic work or home life, financial insecurity, changing a job, health concerns or the loss of a loved one. We all experience stress, and all ages are affected. Even if you don’t acknowledge or recognize your stress, your body is going to display signs and symptoms.

What are symptoms of stress?

People deal with stress differently, and stress can be associated with many physical symptoms. Some of these signs can be depression, anxiety, inflammation, muscle pain, tension in the upper neck or back, headache, fatigue, poor sleep habits, irritability and joint pain.

Why do we sometimes (or often) reach for food when we’re stressed?

Our body perceives stress as a signal that we may be in danger, so it responds by producing epinephrine, or adrenaline, to get us to move, or take immediate action. Epinephrine is only meant to be produced in our body for a short time, so when we experience chronic or long-term stress, the epinephrine is turned into cortisol. Cortisol tells our body it is hungry, and that we need carbohydrates, such as in simple sugars, to produce energy.

When we eat these foods, our body releases dopamine, which makes us happy and temporarily feel better. Unhealthy foods will help us feel better for a short amount of time, but we need to learn long-term strategies to deal with our stress. Planning ahead, exercise or meditation are great ways to start.

How can chronic stress affect our health?

Aside from potentially contributing to unwanted weight gain, stress can weaken our immune systems and increase inflammation in our bodies. Chronic, or long-term stress, causes inflammation in our bodies that can damage blood vessels and increase our risk for stroke or heart attack.

How can we learn to better deal with stress?

We can’t fully get rid of stress, but we can learn how to manage it better. We need to have an outlet when we feel stressed, such as talking to other people, exercising, meditating, doing a relaxing activity, taking a nap or bath, listening to soothing music, reading or focusing on a hobby we enjoy.

What if our stress won’t ease up or go away?

If you are experiencing stress that won’t ease up, you should consider talking to someone. You may need to reach out to your primary care provider or a counselor for help. Having someone to talk to who is on your side can make a big difference.