The link between stress and weight loss

The link between stress and weight loss

I have often touched on the importance of keeping stress levels low to encourage fat loss, however, I have never actually explained the reasons why stress can be so problematic, nor have I explained exactly how to go about reducing your stress levels.

If your goal is to lose fat, it is important to maintain low stress levels. This is because:

  • Two main hormones are released when you are stressed. The first is adrenalin, which provides an initial burst of energy, and at first decreases your appetite as it draws blood away from the internal organs and towards your large muscles.
  • The second, and most important, hormone is cortisol. Naturally, cortisol should be high in the mornings and gradually taper off during the day. It is released when we are under stress, to tell your body to replenish the energy stores it lost fighting or fleeing its stressors. In prehistoric times, when our stressors were tigers hunting us, this was useful. However, now that our stressors are more likely to be traffic and credit card bills, an extra, sudden influx of calories will only lead to weight gain.
  • Cortisol also slows down your metabolism so that your body can maintain an adequate stream of glucose to cope with an impending threat. The hormone also encourages your body to store visceral fat in the mid-section. Essentially, your body is preparing for disaster by storing fat and calories.
  • Finally, cortisol also suppresses the release of testosterone, which makes it more difficult for your body to retain muscle mass – meaning that you will burn fewer calories at rest.
  • Cortisol is what drives your body to reach for processed foods rich in fat and carbohydrates during times of stress. Regardless of whether or not you are truly hungry, you will likely be tempted to turn to food as an emotional crutch. This eating pattern becomes addictive.
This suddenly looks way more appealing...

This suddenly looks way more appealing…

All of this means that no matter how hard you exercise and how strictly you diet, your internal environment may render it impossible to lose weight. High levels of stress also cause headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension and even depression. Stress is no bueno. 

Stress can refer to:

  • The obvious factors most people think of when they claim to be stressed, such as job, relationship, family and money problems.
  • Training itself. Some types of exercise create more stress within the body than others. For example, high-intensity interval training and high-intensity weight training (sets at 90 per cent of your one rep max or above). This is why you should save your one rep max attempts for competition, and limit your HIIT to no more than three, but preferably two, sessions per week.
  • Your diet. If you are in a calorie deficit, especially for prolonged periods of time, your natural cortisol rhythm will be disrupted. If you are constantly obsessing about your diet and food, your cortisol levels will be high.

The best strategy to avoid stress-related weight gain is to avoid being overly stressed in the first place! Short periods of stress are normal and something your body can deal with successfully, however, prolonged, chronic stress is not.


You can reduce your stress levels by:

  • Exercising. Regular, gentle to moderate exercise is an important part of stress relief, however, as mentioned, it is important not to overdo it. Moving will help to trick your body into thinking it is evading its source of stress, and it will naturally lower cortisol levels while simultaneously boosting your metabolism.
  • Ensuring you consume enough calories and avoiding long periods without food. Your body must feel confident that it is not in danger of starving to death.
  • Eating slowly and mindfully, stopping when you feel full. Eat away from distractions, instead of mindlessly scarfing down your lunch in front of your computer screen in two minutes flat.
  • Asking yourself if you are truly hungry before you eat. If you have certain comfort/trigger foods, keep them out of the house.
  • Sleeping at least seven hours per night. When we don’t sleep enough, our cortisol levels rise and our willpower drops. The function of the hormones grehlin and insulin – both of which affect our appetites – are also disrupted.
  • Undertaking calming activities, such as yoga or meditation, taking a bubble bath or curling up with a good book.
  • Avoiding coffee, alcohol and cigarettes. This one is particularly difficult for most people to face but, if your stress levels are extremely high, try cutting out stimulants for a few weeks.

Every time I take a holiday, I lose weight and, judging by the responses and emails I’ve received after writing posts like this, I am not alone. Although I often eat more, I am completely relaxed, sleeping well, not participating in stressful forms of exercise, and more likely to be eating every meal mindfully. 

If you can get a handle on your stress levels, you can achieve your physical goals!

Have you ever found it difficult to lose weight during times of stress? Have you noticed that you lose weight on holiday?

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