Stress Management Effects on Health How Stress Impacts Your Health Guide How Stress Impacts Your Health Guide Overview Signs of Burnout Stress and Weight Gain Benefits of Exercise Stress Reduction Tips Self-Care Practices Mindful Living How Stress Can Cause Weight Gain The Role of Cortisol in the Body By Elizabeth Scott, PhD Elizabeth Scott, PhD Twitter Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. Learn about our editorial process Updated on November 16, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Stress and Cortisol Stress-Induced Habits How to Break the Cycle Next in How Stress Impacts Your Health Guide The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise Stress can significantly impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight. It can also prevent you from losing weight. Whether it's the result of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, unhealthy stress-induced behaviors, or a combination of the two, the link between stress and weight gain is glaring. Self-care strategies like mindfulness, journaling, and exercise can help you fight stress and the unwanted effect it can have on your eating habits. Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin The Link Between Stress and Cortisol Researchers have long known that rises in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain. Every time you're stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. All of this is done to give you the energy you need to escape from a risky situation (also known as the fight or flight response). Once the threat has subsided, your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar spike drops. This is when cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply quickly. 2:04 Watch Now: 5 Ways Stress Can Cause Weight Gain Cortisol and Sugar Cravings Cue the sugar cravings. Because sugar supplies your body with the quick energy it thinks it needs, it's often the first thing you reach for when you're stressed. The downside to consuming so much sugar is that your body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations. This energy is stored mainly in the form of abdominal fat, which can be particularly hard to shed. And so the vicious cycle starts: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave more sugar, eat more sugar, gain more weight. Cortisol and Metabolism Even if you aren't eating foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol also slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight. In 2015, researchers from Ohio State University interviewed women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. After finishing the meal, scientists measured the women's metabolic rates (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and examined their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels. The researchers 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 in one year. Stressed women also had higher insulin levels, a hormone that contributes to fat storage. Stress-Induced Unhealthy Habits In addition to the hormonal changes related to stress, stress can also drive you to engage in the following unhealthy behaviors, all of which can cause weight gain: Emotional eating: Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but excess nervous energy can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. You might find that snacking or reaching for a second helping provides you with some temporary relief from your stress but makes healthy weight management more difficult. Eating "accessible" or fast food: When we are stressed, and not planning, we tend to eat the first thing we see and/or what is readily available and accessible, which is not always the healthiest options. You may also be more likely to drive through a fast-food place, rather than taking the time and mental energy to cook a balanced, healthy meal. Exercising less: With all the demands on your schedule, exercising may be one of the last things on your to-do list. If so, you're not alone. A long commute and hours spent sitting behind a desk can leave little opportunity for physical activity. Skipping meals: When you are juggling a dozen things at once, eating a healthy meal can drop down in the list of priorities. You might find yourself skipping breakfast because you're running late or not eating lunch because there's just too much on your to-do list. Sleeping less: Many people report trouble sleeping when they're stressed. And research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism. Feeling overtired can also reduce willpower and contribute to unhealthy eating habits. How to Break the Cycle of Stress and Weight Gain When you're stressed out, healthy behaviors likely eating properly and exercising regularly can easily fall by the wayside. Maintaining a schedule and/or routine can help make these healthy behaviors a habit and combat stress-related weight changes. Here are a few strategies that can help you break the cycle of stress and weight gain: Make exercise a priority. Exercising is a critical component of stress reduction and weight management. It can help you address both issues simultaneously, so it's essential for warding off stress-related weight gain. Whether you go for a walk during your lunch break or hit the gym after work, incorporate regular exercise into your routine. Eat healthier comfort foods. You don't need carbs or fats to make you feel better. One of the few studies testing the effectiveness of comfort foods in improving mood found that eating relatively healthier comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn, is just as likely to boost a negative mood as "unhealthy" foods. Making sure your pantry is stocked with these types of foods will make it easier to grab a healthier option during times of high stress. Practice mindful eating. Focusing on what you're eating—without distractions—may help lower stress, promote weight loss, and prevent weight gain. One study found that overweight women who had mindfulness-based stress and nutrition training were better able to avoid emotional eating, and had lower stress levels, which led to less belly fat over time. Next time you eat a meal, try enjoying it without the distraction of your phone or the TV. Keep a food journal. Paying attention to your eating habits can help you gain control over your food consumption. A 2011 review of studies that examined the link between self-monitoring and weight loss found that those who kept a food journal were more likely to manage their weight than those who didn't. So whether you use an app to track your food intake or you write everything in a food diary, being more mindful of what you put in your mouth could improve your eating habits. Drink more water. It's easy to confuse thirst for hunger. But confusing these two cravings can lead you to eat more calories than your body needs, prompting weight gain. It's much easier to identify hunger after you've eliminated any mild dehydration. If it's only been a couple of hours since you've eaten and you feel hungry, try drinking some water first. If you still feel hungry, then grab a snack. Incorporate stress-relief strategies into your daily life. Whether you enjoy yoga or you find solace in reading a good book, try adding simple stress relievers like taking a deep breath, listening to music, or going on a walk into your daily routine. Doing so can reduce your cortisol levels, helping you manage your weight. A Word From Verywell If your stress and/or stress-related weight gain is causing you distress or making it unmanageable to fulfill daily responsibilities, it may be time to seek professional health. Psychotherapy, and in particular cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be very helpful in teaching coping skills to better manage stress and weight. 8 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Block JP, He Y, Zaslavsky AM, Ding L, Ayanian JZ. Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2009;170(2):181–192. doi:10.1093/aje/kwp104 Goldstein DS. Adrenal responses to stress. Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2010;30(8):1433–1440. doi:10.1007/s10571-010-9606-9 Yau YH, Potenza MN. Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013;38(3):255–267. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Habash DL, Fagundes CP, Andridge R, Peng J, Malarkey WB & Belury MA. Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: A novel path to obesity. Biol Psychiatry. 2015; 77(7):653–660. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018 Leow S, Jackson B, Alderson JA, Guelfi KJ & Dimmock JA. A role for exercise in attenuating unhealthy food consumption in response to stress. Nutrients. 2018; 10(2):176. doi:10.3390/nu10020176 Wagner HS, Ahlstrom B, Redden JP, Vickers Z, Mann T. The myth of comfort food. Health Psychol. 2014;33(12):1552-1557. doi:10.1037/hea0000068 Daubenmier J, Kristeller J, Hecht FM, et al. Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: An exploratory randomized controlled study. J Obes. 2011;2011:651936. doi:10.1155/2011/651936 Burke LE, Wang J, Sevick MA. Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111(1):92-102. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.10.008 Additional Reading Cedernaes J, Schönke M, Westholm JO, et al. Acute sleep loss results in tissue-specific alterations in genome-wide DNA methylation state and metabolic fuel utilization in humans. Sci Adv. 2018;4(8):eaar8590. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aar8590 Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity. 2017;25(4):713-720. doi:10.1002/oby.21790 Haidar SA, de Vries NK, Karavetian M, El-Rassi R. Stress, anxiety, and weight gain among university and college students: A systematic review. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018;118(2):261-274. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2017.10.015 By Elizabeth Scott, PhD Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Stress Management Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.