Can Stress Cause Weight Loss?

Written by Liza Brunell

Adv Dip Health Science Naturopathy, Nutrition          Hi there, my name is Liza, I am a Naturopath, Herbalist, Nutritionist from Brisbane, Queensland. And I’m here to show you how easy good nutrition and healthy living can be.

July 14, 2021

When working with clients in clinic, one of the common questions I would ask during our session was what their perceived stress levels were.  This is due to the fact that stress can be incredibly impactful on someone’s health and wellbeing.  It was interesting that initially many did not consider themselves as being stressed however, as we delved deeper into their health or weight issues it soon became clear that stress was indeed a contributing factor to what they were experiencing.

Often during stressful periods, we may engage in out of character behaviours which may look like skipping meals, or staying up late to meet deadlines, having interrupted sleep while making up tomorrow’s to-do list in your head instead of getting that much needed sleep.  All these behavioural changes wreak havoc on your hormones and for some individuals can lead to weight loss.

Can Stress Lead to Weight Loss? 

During times of acute stress your body slips into “fight or flight” mode, which is basically our body’s response to any perceived threat.  You have probably heard that the term fight or flight represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with imminent danger, they had the choice to either stay and fight or to flee to survive.  Let’s face it, no-one is thinking about eating at times like this.

As your body prepares itself for this dangerous situation the sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands as it prepares the body for rigorous activity to deal with the impending threat. The surge in this hormone causes the heart to beat faster, breathing picks up speed, and blood is pumping which may increase calorie burning.  Additionally, there are changes to digestive function and blood glucose levels as cortisol signals the body to temporarily suppress nonessential bodily functions to deal with the upcoming crisis and to release energy for fuel by releasing fatty acids and glucose from the liver.

How does stress affect weight loss?

Stress can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort as your body slows digestion during stressful situations which may lead to gastrointestinal distress as the signal between your brain and GI system become apparent. Symptoms may include:

  • abdominal pain
  • heartburn
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation
  • heartburn or reflux
  • bloating
  • vomiting
  • alterations to appetite
  • cramps or muscle spasms

This disharmony to your digestive tract may cause you to eat less, subsequently leading to weight loss.

Stress can lead to weight loss through nervous movements or over-exercising.

Physical activity can be a great way to work through stress, however, overexercising to work through stress may lead to unwanted weight loss.

Occasionally stress may trigger unconscious movement, with nervous bodily movements like foot tapping or clicking of fingers. These sporadic movements may help your body process stressful feelings and may also burn calories. When I first met my husband, he would constantly shake or tap his foot (hopefully not because he was anxious around me) I do think at least for him that this behaviour had become habitual, as after alerting him whenever the foot shaking started this made him more conscious of these movements, he has now thankfully stopped.

Can Stress & Anxiety Cause Weight Loss?

Stress and anxiety are like two sides of the same coin. Stress is the result of demands on your brain and/or body and can be caused by an event or activity that makes you nervous or worried. Anxiety is that same result of worry, fear, or uncertainty. Both anxiety and stress cause both physical and mental symptoms, which may include:

  • headache
  • stomach-ache
  • fast heartbeat
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • jitteriness
  • muscle tension
  • rapid breathing
  • panic
  • nervousness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irrational anger or irritability
  • restlessness
  • sleeplessness

Neither stress or anxiety is always a bad thing as both can provide you with a bit of a kick or push to accomplish a task or challenge ahead. However, if stress or anxiety becomes persistent, they can significantly impact your daily life. According to Beyond Blue one in seven Australians are currently affected by an anxiety condition.

If you are losing weight due to stress, Here’s what to do:

As you can see stress and anxiety affects a significant number of people and although we have spoken in depth about the affect on stress and weight gain, as you can see stress also has a great impact on some individuals inversely resulting in weight loss.   So, how do we negate stress and this impact on our metabolism and weight loss?

Try to maintain a regular eating schedule.

I have read many personal development books in my life and one clear message that has come from my readings is that if you would like to maintain a habit or begin a ritual, it is important to schedule it in.  By maintaining a regular eating habits or schedules you can balance blood sugar levels and in turn improve your mood, boost energy levels and your immune system.

Set an alarm or reminder on your phone.

As mentioned previously stress can impact feelings of hunger. When you are stressed, you may find that you are not feeling hungry which may cause you to miss meals, or you may be feeling too stressed to remember to eat. Try setting an alarm on your phone, computer, or alarm clock to avoid missing meals and remind yourself that it is time to eat.

Try eating small meals, regularly.

If your blood sugar is out of balance from missing meals or overloading on foods high in sugar or carbohydrates this can increase your stress levels by impacting energy and moods.  If you can maintain a regular eating pattern you can mitigate these signs and symptoms and feel more balanced overall. It is understandable that you may not feel hungry, however, try starting slowly maybe drinking fresh juices or smoothies may kick-start your appetite and get you on the road to more regular eating habits.

Choose foods that can help improve your mood and manage stress and anxiety.

Choosing whole foods over highly processed foods that mess with your blood sugar levels is key to maintaining and managing stress.  Consume good quality proteins, fresh fruits, vegetables, and antioxidants as this will prevent the inevitable comedown after eating high sugar or high carbohydrate foods like lollies, chips, soft drinks, baked goods, and fried foods.  Although these kinds of foods may be our go to when we are feeling stressed, some studies have shown that foods such as air-popped popcorn have a similar impact in boosting negative moods as most junk foods.

 At the end of the day ultimately stress can impact weight loss.

It is possible to work through minimal stress-related weight loss at home, however, you should see a healthcare professional if the stress has become prolonged and your weight loss is unhealthy for your age, height, and exercise output.  This may mean working with a healthcare professional to create a program that works specifically for you and your individual circumstances.

Some strategies or techniques that may help reduce stress include:

  1.  Identify the trigger – this will give you a much better handle on how to deal with or address the problem. Have you ever been through stressful periods in which you have pace up and down, felt chest pain or bitten your nails without even being conscious of what you are doing?  It may help to be aware of the triggers that cause you to feel this stress/anxiety response to help you to manage it.
  2. Physical activity is beneficial for maintaining both mind and body.  If exercise is moderate, and not excessive it can help lessen fatigue, reduce stress and improve overall cognitive function.
  3. Use breathing techniques or exercises, to help calm your stress and anxiety, there are apps available to help guide you through breathing techniques during stressful periods of time.
  4. Meditation or mindfulness practice including mindful eating.
  5. Listening to music or reading.
  6. Journal, take some time to write down your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the writing can help you work through the route cause of your negative emotions.
  7. Connect with family and friends.
  8. Get adequate sleep.
  9. Do some volunteer work or give back by helping others.
  10. Avoid drugs, alcohol and excessive consumption of caffeine.
  11. Hydrate – not only does drinking lots of water help flush toxins, but it will also help prevent headaches and give you more energy.

Although dropping 1-2kg is not generally a cause for concern, unexpected or undesired weight loss is not ideal.  If consistent use of these techniques does not help to reduce your levels of stress, it would be beneficial to contact your health care professional for further advice and help. As if stress becomes chronic this can lead to further health implications long term.

If you are losing weight due to stress, you do not have to feel like you are coping on your own, reach out for help if everything gets too overwhelming, although stress is a part of our daily lives, it doesn’t have to take over all of your thoughts and feelings.  Often talking to someone and developing a different perspective can give you far more clarity and understanding around a situation making it much easier to cope.

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