It’s common knowledge that stress isn’t healthy. A high-stress level correlates with a higher risk of cardiovascular problems, digestive issues, anxiety, and even impaired memory and focus. There’s one particular area that many people don’t realize may be impacted by stress: body weight and composition.
Some people lose their appetite when they feel stressed, while others may want to snack more. The problems with stress go far deeper than snacking behavior, though — it actually impacts your body on a chemical level. Even negative self-talk can contribute to this phenomenon. When you engage in a self-deprecating internal monologue, you can subconsciously increase your stress levels. Here are five ways that these behaviors can sabotage weight loss:
Stress causes insulin spikes.
To get to the root of how stress impacts weight gain, it’s important to recognize exactly what it does on a chemical level. Cortisol is an important hormone that increases blood sugar, lowers the immune system, slows bone formation, and aids in metabolizing protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Under normal circumstances, it helps maintain health by ensuring that the body has adequate energy. Aerobic exercise raises cortisol in order to keep muscles fueled, but levels soon go back to normal.
The problem arises when stress triggers a chronic increase in cortisol. The body “thinks” it’s facing a life-or-death scenario, so it helpfully tries to make sure that muscles have the fuel they need to either run away or fight off a threat. This causes spikes in insulin to break down sugar, which subsequently causes low blood sugar. As a result, chronic stress can cause cravings for sugary foods in order to replenish energy.
Prolonged increases in cortisol encourage the formation of fat around the abdominal area — the most dangerous place to carry fat. Abdominal fat impacts organs and is more readily placed in circulation than fat elsewhere in the body, contributing to unhealthy blood lipids. Unfortunately, carrying extra abdominal fat also increases cortisol levels, leading to a cycle that can be difficult to break.
This is one of the ways that negative self-talk can actually make weight loss more difficult. People who look in the mirror and disparage their belly fat may be inadvertently contributing to it by adding to their stress level.
It slows metabolism.
Cortisol tries to protect the body in times of stress by fueling muscles, and, at the same time, slows down metabolism. A 2015 study by Ohio State University interviewed a sample group of women about stressors they had experienced in the previous 24 hours. Afterward, the women were fed a high-fat, high-calorie meal, and researchers measured their metabolic rates. The findings were surprising: Women who reported being stressed during the previous day burned, on average, 104 fewer calories than the women who did not.
Under normal circumstances, this metabolism-lowering effect would be beneficial. Under short periods of stress, it helps fuel the muscles while making energy stores last as long as possible. When it happens due to chronic stress, it contributes to weight gain instead.
It creates neurological problems.
Since being stressed out makes it tough to focus and remember things, it can make it very difficult to plan ahead. If this stress comes from family problems, long hours at work, or other time-consuming factors, it gets even harder. As a result, fast food can be very tempting — it doesn’t require any planning, there are no dishes to do, and it only takes minutes to pick it up on the way home from work. Cooking healthy meals at home requires planning, time, and energy, all of which may be in short supply when you’re stressed.
It impacts sleep.
Stress makes it harder to get deep, restful sleep. Not getting enough sleep on a consistent correlates with higher weight. In one study, people who were considered medically obese were found to have a shorter sleep duration than those who were not.
This happens for many reasons. Poor sleep can add to stress, as it makes it harder to focus and remembers things and impairs reaction time. People also tend to combat fatigue with caffeine and sugar. One can of soda contains as many as 140 calories, while a 20-ounce frappe from a coffee chain may easily top 500 — even without added whipped cream or syrup.
When your weight loss isn’t going as well as you’d like, it can be tempting to engage in negative self-talk. In reality, this doesn’t help the situation. If anything, it only hurts you in the long run. Improving sleep habits, avoiding convenience foods, and engaging in stress-management techniques can help you overcome the effect of stress on the body. You’ll feel better, be healthier, and lose weight more easily.