- Stress hormones can have a number of effects on your body, including changes in weight.
- Stress can mess with your metabolism, appetite, and digestion and lead to weight loss.
- Sleep, relaxation, and other self-care can help you manage stress and minimize its negative effects.
You may already know that stress can play a part in weight gain over time, but did you know it can also lead to weight loss?
When you're stressed, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flood your system, keeping you tense and alert, ideally so you can escape danger.
It doesn't matter if your stress comes from a deadly foe or a dreaded PowerPoint presentation — your body doesn't know the difference, says Dr. Teresa Poprawski, neuropsychiatrist and chief medical officer of Relief Mental Health.
When you encounter stressful situations over and over, regardless of what causes them, the end result is usually the same. The buildup of stress hormones in your body can trigger a number of mental and physical effects, from anxiety and panic attacks to disrupted sleep to changes in weight.
Read on to discover four reasons why stress may lead to weight loss, along with expert tips to manage your stress levels.
Table of Contents
1. Stress can sabotage your appetite
Short-term stress, on the other hand, can suppress appetite hormones.
In a nutshell, stress and anxiety can make you pay less attention to food, which could cause unintentional weight loss, says Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, board-certified neurologist and Chief Medical Officer at Clearing.
Researchers estimate around 40% of people respond to stress by eating less. If you feel tense and distracted due to conflict, deadlines, or other challenges at work or school, you might not focus on your food — which could lead you to eat smaller portions, skip meals, or even forget to eat altogether.
The effects of short-term stress usually subside after 24 hours. In other words, a rotten day or week probably won't cause a major change in your weight. But ongoing stress could lower your food intake over time, or even play a part in stress-induced eating disorders.
2. Stress can change your metabolism
The flood of hormones your body releases under stress can affect your metabolism, according to some research.
One hormone in particular — corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) — can reduce appetite. It also prompts the release of catecholamines, which are hormones that can stimulate your body to break down fat tissues.
What's more, researchers have also found evidence to suggest that the way your body responds to stressful situations might depend on individual differences — including the foods you prefer to eat.
For instance, if your go-to comfort foods are fresh apples, vegetable soup, or popcorn, rather than things like macaroni and cheese, donuts, or pizza, you may be less likely to gain weight when stressed — especially if "stress eating" for you means eating less than usual.
3. Stress can affect how your body digests food
In fight or flight mode, blood and oxygen rush to your limbs instead of your digestive tract, and contractions in your gut slow down. As a result, food doesn't pass through your digestive system as quickly as it usually would.
These digestive disruptions could also cause uncomfortable stomach issues like:
- Stomach pain
- Acid reflux
It might go without saying, but when you're hunched over your desk with heartburn or cramps, you may not want to eat. So, any of these gastrointestinal ailments could lead to unintentional weight loss over time.
If you're occasionally stressed out, your body can usually get back to normal when your tension subsides. But when something happens to trigger your stress response on a regular basis, your body has a harder time recovering. Long story short, your stomach troubles could stick around.
Stress could also trigger flare-ups of chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — which can play a part in weight loss by affecting your appetite and your body's ability to absorb nutrients.
4. Stress might lead to over-exercising or fidgeting
Moderate exercise often helps lower stress levels. But if you tend to run from your troubles on the treadmill or the track, the extra calories you burn might lead to an unexpected drop on the scale.
That might not sound all that bad, especially if you want to improve your gains in the gym. But overexercising poses potential risks, such as weakening your immune system and triggering feelings of depression and anxiety.
Of course, when it comes to stress-related weight loss, extra workouts aren't the only potential culprit.
Some people react to stress with nervous fidgeting, like foot tapping or other involuntary movements, that can also burn away calories, Poprawski says.
And when you can't stop nervously bouncing in your seat or pacing your way through tense phone call after tense phone call, you might unintentionally put yourself in a calorie deficit.
Tips for managing stress
Even if you want to lose weight, stressing yourself out isn't a great way to go about it.
Constant stress in your life can increase your risk of health concerns like:
If you tend to lose weight in stressful times, these expert tips can help you better manage your stress levels.
- Visualizing relief: Mindfulness or visualization techniques may help dispel stress or anxiety. Hascalovici suggests picturing a cool blue light traveling through all the places your body harbors stress. Then, imagine the light absorbing and dispelling your stress.
- Sighing with purpose: Sighing is your body's natural way of lowering your heartbeat, Poprawski says. So if you're feeling tense, a technique called the "voluntary physiological sigh" could help you relax. To perform a psychological sigh, you take two short inhales through your nose and one long exhale through your mouth. You can repeat this up to three times whenever stress looms over you.
- Embracing the cold: If you need a quick way to calm down, Hascalovici recommends dunking your face in cold water. The abrupt change in temperature might stimulate your vagus nerve, which could help lower your heart rate and ease stress.
- Prioritizing sleep: "Sleep is vital for stress management, so keep your sleeping space dark, cool and quiet," Hascalovici says. Other tips to maximize your sleep hygiene and get a more restful snooze include putting away your smartphone and avoiding caffeine and sugar before bed.
- Exercising regularly: Low-impact activities like yoga or walking can help you get your blood pumping and reduce stress levels. Just take care to avoid drastically increasing your workouts due to stress and monitor yourself for signs of overdoing it — like fatigue, insomnia, or excess soreness.
- Choosing soothing snacks: Magnesium can help regulate your body's stress response. So, choosing snacks high in magnesium, like almonds or pumpkin seeds, might give you a boost of calm. Keep in mind, too, that substances like caffeine might also raise stress-related hormones. Switching to decaf or herbal tea might help you unwind.
When to seek medical help for stress
Breathing exercises and visualization techniques can help you calm down in the moment. But, if your stress levels weave deeper into your life, it may be time to reach out for help.
"If you start to feel that your stress is controlling you instead of the other way around, it could be time to seek out a doctor or therapist," Hascalovici says — especially if you:
- Frequently feel anxious, irritable, or depressed
- Get sick more often
- Feel the urge to avoid or withdraw from family or friends
- Notice stress interfering with your daily life, like work, school, and your relationships
In short, if you don't feel like yourself, and you aren't sure how to get off the stress roller coaster, you may want to reach out to your primary care doctor or a therapist, Hascalovici says.
Stress can have a range of effects on your appetite and weight. In some cases, stress can cause appetite loss, indigestion, or nervous movement, all of which might play a part in unintentional weight loss.
Practicing breathing exercises, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising in moderation could all help you cope with high stress levels and find more calm in your life — while still maintaining your ideal weight.
If you find yourself unexpectedly dropping weight or struggling to manage stress on your own, a doctor or therapist can always offer more guidance and support.