Stress is OK in small doses — it's our body's natural response to a threat. But if you feel perpetually like Andie trying to get Miranda's twins the unreleased Harry Potter novel in The Devil Wears Prada, it can have negative consequences on your body and mind. One of these side effects: weight gain. We talked to Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a physician board-certified in obesity medicine, and Amanda Barnes, MS, RDN, and owner of Amanda Barnes Fitness, to see how, exactly, stress can make you gain weight.
In times of stress, our bodies release cortisol, Dr. Seltzer said. Cortisol is also known by its alter ego, the stress hormone. "By itself, cortisol does not cause weight gain," he explained. "It is a catabolic hormone that causes weight loss by breaking down muscle and fat." But that, unfortunately, doesn't mean that more stress equals weight loss. Cortisol is actually an appetite stimulant, Dr. Seltzer said, which explains why when you're stressed, you want to eat. And you can have a harder time saying no to carb-y, fatty junk foods.
"Gaining weight due to stress is very common, and there are actually physiological reasons we tend to eat more and crave more unhealthy foods when we are stressed," Barnes said. When you eat these kinds of foods, your brain releases dopamine, Barnes explained. Dopamine activates the reward and pleasure centers in our brains. "This is a continuous loop leading to increased appetite and cravings, which in turn can lead to weight gain," she explained.
Chronic stress can also cause your adrenals to go haywire. Your adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol, but they can get burnt out if you're consistently stressed. This can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can — you guessed it — cause you to gain weight.