Does stress cause weight loss?
LAST UPDATED: May 17, 2023
6 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
For many people, “life is stressful” is an understatement.
Sometimes, stress can become overwhelming and unbearable. Stress affects your mood, sleep, sex drive, and even hair. And, it can seriously mess with your appetite, cravings, and eating habits too — leading to weight loss or weight gain.
Get access to GLP-1 medication (if prescribed) and 1:1 support to meet your weight goals
Can stress cause weight loss?
Yes, stress can cause weight loss, primarily by activating your fight or flight response. If you’ve ever ridden a roller coaster, you know what a rush of adrenaline can feel like. But when your body senses a threat — whether it’s a roaring lion or a rude email from your coworker — that same response gets triggered. Here’s how it works.
When you experience stress, your body releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, the stress hormone. Your body suppresses nonessential functions, like your digestive and reproductive systems, so you can focus exclusively on the threat. At the same time, your adrenal glands keep on releasing cortisol, revving up your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. While these actions prepare your body to face the threat, they also happen to burn calories — in addition to the calories you burn as cortisol sources more energy to deal with the threat.
Live with stress long enough that it becomes chronic, and your body will adapt by releasing elevated levels of stress hormones. Over time, this can lead to health issues like fatigue, burnout, depression, anxiety, and even a weakened immune system or heart disease.
Causes of stress-related weight loss
There are several ways stress can lead to weight loss. You may be so busy with work that you skip lunch. One study found a link between high job stress and weight loss in men. Or maybe you’re so emotionally overwhelmed that you just don’t have the heart to eat. Let’s look at some of the causes of stress-related weight loss.
Stress can cause changes in your eating behaviors, and preliminary research suggests that it might affect hormone levels that cause either weight gain or weight loss. In some people, stress might stimulate the release of leptin, or the satiety hormone, so they may eat less when they’re stressed, but more research is needed here.
What’s more common is that stress can cause gastrointestinal symptoms that make eating less enjoyable, such as:
Stomach pain or indigestion
While using exercise as a stress management technique can be super healthy and helpful, it is possible to overdo it. Working out too hard can increase stress and inflammation, worsening fatigue and mood. Even if you’re not overdoing it, you may be pushing harder during your workouts to blow off steam, which can lead to unintentional weight loss.
Also, some people react to stressful situations by moving more, period. Anxious finger tapping, knee bouncing, pacing around the room, and other kinds of fidgeting can expend energy, too, leading to more burned calories and weight loss.
Not enough sleep
If you’re losing sleep over your stress, that can also lead to weight loss. Too little sleep can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythms, the internal 24-hour body clock that dictates not just your sleep cycles, but also your appetite, sex drive, and other aspects of your physical health. Sleep disruptions can also mess with your cortisol production, affecting your metabolism or eating habits.
If you are not overweight and don’t actively try to lose weight, a little weight loss here and there may not be anything to worry about. But, if you’re noticing a significant amount of unexplained weight loss — particularly without any obvious cause — make an appointment with your healthcare provider, especially if you’re experiencing other signs of stress, like headaches or emotional eating.
Can stress cause weight gain?
Yes, stress can also do the opposite. It can cause weight gain and stymie weight loss efforts. While some people respond to stress by eating less, others eat more and gain weight. Levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, may increase, leading to emotional eating and changing how your brain responds to food. The more you rely on comfort foods for relief, the more your brain starts to crave them for stress relief, creating a vicious cycle.
Research has found that stress can disturb sleep, increase your appetite (along with cravings for junk foods), and reduce your motivation to work out. Stress not only influences what you feel like eating, but it also impacts your body’s metabolic response to unhealthy food. For example, people who are stressed or depressed tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Instead, they may eat more snacks, sweets, and fast foods.
If your stress is disrupting your sleep, as stress often does, you may find yourself increasing your food intake, especially from snacks or overeating. In fact, sleep is a predictor of weight loss success.
Ways to reduce stress
No matter if stress triggers you to eat more and gain weight, or restricts your appetite and makes you shed some pounds, stress is never healthy. Try these tips for relieving stress.
1. Make sure you’re eating
It sounds obvious, but all those meals you skip due to stress can worsen how you feel. Make time for a few meals each day and stick to a regular eating schedule. Don’t skip meals, and refuel with a snack after you exercise.
In many ways, you are what you eat, so try to opt for healthier, stress-reducing foods when possible. For example, fruits and vegetables are associated with a more positive mood, and less inflammation and oxidative stress.
Avoid foods high in fat, sugar, and sodium that can increase inflammation, cause blood sugar crashes, and make stress feel worse. Instead, spice up your diet with the following foods:
Leafy greens rich in vitamin B, which can help calm your nerves
Soybeans, whole grains, and complex carbohydrates may help increase your serotonin levels and improve sleep
2. Practice relaxation techniques
There is a whole world of relaxation techniques out there. Explore and see what works for you.
According to one study, progressive muscle relaxation may make it easier to stick to a healthy diet. With progressive muscle relaxation, you start at your toes and slowly work your way up your body, squeezing each body part for five seconds, before relieving the tension for 10 seconds.
Different types of meditation can also relieve stress, from repeating a positive mantra to mindfulness meditations, which help you tune into the here and now. You might try guided imagery, where you transport yourself mentally to another place, imagining the sights, smells, and sounds you might feel while gently swaying in a hammock by the beach, or sitting underneath a big, leafy tree. Guided imagery has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety, and improve well-being.
Deep breathing exercises can help your body understand it’s safe to let go of the fight-or-flight response. Simply take long deep breaths, or practice 2:1 breathing — taking twice as long to exhale as you do to inhale. One study found that doing this twice a day for a little over five minutes significantly reduced blood pressure. Or, try box breathing, where you inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four.
3. Make time to sleep
You can use tools to relax into sleep, like eye masks, earplugs, sleep meditation, or a white noise playlist.
4. Keep working out
If you're able to exercise, do what you can to keep up your exercise routine. Stress may make you feel less motivated to work out, but physical activity can work wonders for your mental health and stress levels. Working out reduces stress, with stress-relieving effects that last for several hours after your workout ends. Further, research shows that moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise can help keep you from reaching for unhealthy foods as a way to cope with stress.
The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise.
5. Seek support from others
Finally, reach out to the people who care about you. Lean on your family and friends for support. They love you and want to help you get through what is troubling you.
If your stress is significantly interfering with your quality of life, consider therapy. From cognitive-behavioral therapy to exposure therapy, there are a number of options you can try to explore the root of your stress and develop healthy coping strategies to manage it and feel more at ease in your daily life.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Adhana, R., Gupta, R., Dvivedii, J., et al. (2013). The influence of the 2:1 yogic breathing technique on essential hypertension. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 57(1), 38–44. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24020097/
Bremner, J. D., Moazzami, K., Wittbrodt, M. T., et al. (2020). Diet, Stress and Mental Health. Nutrients, 12(8), 2428. doi:10.3390/nu12082428. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468813/
Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., et al. (2022). Physiology, Stress Reaction. StatPearls. Retrieved May 10, 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
Clevers, E., Törnblom, H., Simrén, M., et al. (2019). Relations between food intake, psychological distress, and gastrointestinal symptoms: A diary study. United European Gastroenterology Journal, 7(7), 965–973. doi:10.1177/2050640619839859. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6683644/
Geiker, N. R. W., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., et al. (2018). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa?. Obesity Reviews: An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 19(1), 81–97. doi:10.1111/obr.12603. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28849612/
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2010). Stress, food, and inflammation: psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(4), 365–369. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181dbf489. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2868080/
Kivimäki, M., Head, J., Ferrie, J. E., et al. (2006). Work stress, weight gain and weight loss: evidence for bidirectional effects of job strain on body mass index in the Whitehall II study. International Journal of Obesity (2005), 30(6), 982–987. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803229. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16418750/
Krau, S. D. (2020). The Multiple Uses of Guided Imagery. The Nursing Clinics of North America, 55(4), 467–474. doi:10.1016/j.cnur.2020.06.013. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33131625/
Kreher, J. B. & Schwartz, J. B. (2012). Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health, 4(2), 128–138. doi:10.1177/1941738111434406. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3435910/
Levine, J. A., Schleusner, S. J., & Jensen, M. D. (2000). Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72(6), 1451–1454. doi:10.1093/ajcn/72.6.1451. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11101470/
Moritz, B., Schmitz, A. E., Rodrigues, A. L. S., et al. (2020). The role of vitamin C in stress-related disorders. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 85, 108459. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2020.108459. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32745879/
Nisar, M., Mohammad, R. M., Arshad, A., et al. (2019). Influence of Dietary Intake on Sleeping Patterns of Medical Students. Cureus, 11(2), e4106. doi:10.7759/cureus.4106. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6476615/
Norelli, S. K., Long, A., & Krepps, J. M. (2022). Relaxation Techniques. StatPearls. Retrieved May 10, 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513238/
Papatriantafyllou, E., Efthymiou, D., Zoumbaneas, E., et al. (2022). Sleep Deprivation: Effects on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance. Nutrients, 14(8), 1549. doi:10.3390/nu14081549. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9031614/
Pickering, G., Mazur, A., Trousselard, M., et al. (2020). Magnesium Status and Stress: The Vicious Circle Concept Revisited. Nutrients, 12(12), 3672. doi:10.3390/nu12123672. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7761127/
Schultchen, D., Reichenberger, J., Mittl, T., et al. (2019). Bidirectional relationship of stress and affect with physical activity and healthy eating. British Journal of Health Psychology, 24(2), 315–333. doi;10.1111/bjhp.12355. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6767465/
Smith, K. E., Mason, T. B., Wang, W. L., et al. (2022). Dynamic associations between anxiety, stress, physical activity, and eating regulation over the course of a behavioral weight loss intervention. Appetite, 168, 105706. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2021.105706. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8671217/
Tomiyama, A. J. (2019). Stress and Obesity. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 703–718. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102936. Retrieved from https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102936
Xenaki, N., Bacopoulou, F., Kokkinos, A., et al. (2018). Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Molecular Biochemistry, 7(2), 78–84. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6296480/