Chronic Effects of Stress on Health and Weight Loss
Stress is a common emotional sensation that many individuals experience frequently. While some stress is good, prolonged periods of stress, known as chronic stress, can have detrimental effects on our body and minds. This article will discuss the impact of chronic stress as well as strategies to manage it.
What is chronic stress?
Chronic stress occurs when you have endured a prolonged period of excessive stress levels. Chronic stress can be brought about from things such as strenuous relationship, work, or financial troubles. When experiencing stress for such an extended period, these emotions can have a devastating impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. For example, chronic stress can bring about symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, lowered immune systems, and muscle tension in addition to mental deficits such as anxiety, depression, or trouble sleeping. If chronic stress is not treated appropriately, it can cause long-term consequences, affecting your quality of life.
How does chronic stress impact health?
Chronic stress can impact your health in both physical and mental forms.
Exposure to long-term stressors can cause an array of health issues, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune problems1. It has also been shown to weaken one’s immune system, reducing the body’s ability to fight illnesses like the cold and flu2.
Some research even shows that stress can affect the development and progression of cancer. Studies show that stress hormones affect tumors in several ways, including their ability to form, grow, and spread. One study, for example, demonstrated that chronic stress measured by high cortisol levels increased the weight of tumors and the likelihood they will spread to other organs. Likewise, some experts have postulated that targeting the central nervous system can supplement traditional cancer treatment, potentially improving outcomes3.
Chronic stress can also cause numerous mental health problems, particularly with anxiety and depression. In terms of mood disorders, long-term exposure to life stressors has been shown to induce symptoms of depression. In fact, depressed individuals typically have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, compared with their peers4. Depression involves a depressed mood, loss of interest, and several other symptoms. Other mental disorders, like anxiety, can also result from prolonged stressors.
How does chronic stress impact weight loss?
Weight is one of the many physical attributes that can be affected by long periods of stress. These physical changes in weight can be attributed to two main things: alterations to appetite and alterations to metabolism.
Changes in Appetite
How stress affects one’s appetite will depend on the type of stress and the individual themselves. However, it can certainly influence one’s eating behaviors and choices of food. When someone experiences acute stress, meaning stress for a short period of time, typically they may have a suppressed appetite, thus restricting their food intake. Chronic stress induces the opposite response in which individuals may actively seek out and eat high-fat and energy-dense meals. Likewise, chronic stress is associated with weight gain and obesity5.
Changes in Metabolism
As previously discussed, cortisol is a major hormone implicated in the body’s stress response. In turn, cortisol can induce changes to your body’s pathophysiology, including your metabolism. The adrenal glands release cortisol under stress, causing your body to activate fight or flight mode. In this state, the body slows its metabolism. Additionally, it activates fat and carbohydrate metabolism, causing the body to increase its energy utilization, thus increasing appetite. As aforementioned, these changes in appetite can affect weight6.
Strategies to Manage Chronic Stress
Although there are consequences to chronic stress, there are also several ways to manage stress levels.
Many times, when individuals are stressed, they will not prioritize things such as physical activity and eating a healthy diet. The reality is that these practices, although they require time and energy, can help reduce stress levels. When it comes to exercise, most forms of movement can relieve stress. Exercise does this through several mechanisms. For starters, it increases substances in the body known as endorphins, which are hormones that can help improve mood while decreasing feelings of discomfort. Exercise has also been shown to better your overall mood by relaxing the body, decreasing depression and anxiety symptoms, and improving sleep.
The great thing about exercise is that there are many types of movement, making it suitable for most individuals. Good forms of physical activity include things like walking, running, cycling, weightlifting, swimming, doing yoga, or climbing stairs. To achieve optimal results in the context of stress, individuals should prioritize exercise and engage in workouts that are enjoyable for them.
Mediation is an ancient practice that has been used for centuries to become more mindful and relieve negative emotions, including stress. Likewise, meditation is a simple method that can be integrated into anyone’s daily routine. It is easy to do, costs no money, and does not require any equipment or professionals.
Mediation helps to restore a state of peace, calmness, and relaxation in the body. In meditation, you should focus on something calming. Doing so allows you to manage your stress while focusing on the present and slowing your body and mind. Mediation has also demonstrated benefits outside of just stress. It has also been shown to improve sleep quality, lower blood pressure, and increase self-awareness.
A balanced meal plan is essential to improving symptoms of stress as well as the side effects of stress. As aforementioned, stress can weaken your immune system. A healthy diet helps to support your immune system and increase energy. Certain foods, like vegetables and omega-3 fats, can even help keep cortisol levels in check7.
Stress can have a large impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. More specifically, it can negatively affect your weight loss goals by increasing your appetite and slowing down your metabolism. With time, this can cause weight gain. Thankfully, there are a multitude of ways to help manage chronic stress. These include exercise, a healthy diet, and meditation. Consider working these into your routine if you experience stress both in the short-term and the long-term.
- Tafet GE, Pilotte N, Dominguez JM, et al. Acute stress-induced changes in plasma glucose, insulin, and corticosterone in rats. Stress. 2005;8(3):153-159. doi:10.1080/10253890590969874
- Epel ES, McEwen B, Seeman T, et al. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosom Med. 2000;62(5):631-636.
- Weichselbaum E, Epel E. Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiol Behav. 2015;152:381-389. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.04.033.
- How too much stress can cause weight gain and what to do about it. Orlando Health. https://www.orlandohealth.com/content-hub/how-too-much-stress-can-cause-weight-gain-and-what-to-do-about-it. Published January 2021.
- Stress and Health. The Nutrition Source. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/stress-and-health/.