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How stress affects your weight

How stress affects your weight


As most of us probably know only too well, stress is part of life. It affects us all – it even affects animals and plants. But stress doesn’t come on its own. In fact, if you’re persistently stressed out, you may have a high risk of developing one or more health problems as a result.
Being under too much stress on too regular a basis, for instance, may play a part in the development of conditions including mental health problems, heart problems, digestive upsets, headaches, back pain, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure and frequent colds and infections. But it can also cause changes with your weight, with some people gaining weight when they’re under constant pressure and others losing weight (find out more about stress in our guide to stress symptoms and signs). 
We don’t know how many people experience stress-related problems with their weight, but we do know that stress itself is a common issue. The most recent survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation on stress dates back to 2018, when it was described as the largest and most comprehensive stress survey ever carried out across the country (i). The survey found that 74 per cent of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

How to spot the symptoms of stress

To find out whether your weight loss or gain is connected to stress, ask yourself if you’re also experiencing any typical stress symptoms. According to the NHS stress can cause many different symptoms that aren’t always easy to recognise, including physical symptoms, mental symptoms and changes in your behaviour (ii):

  • Physical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, muscle tension or pain, stomach problems, chest pain, a rapid heartbeat and sexual problems

  • Typical mental symptoms include concentration difficulties, feeling overwhelmed, constant worrying, forgetfulness and struggling to make decisions

  • Behavioural changes associated with stress include sleeping too much or too little, drinking or smoking more, irritability and avoiding certain places or people

If you’re experiencing one or more of these symptoms and are also having problems with your weight, there’s a good chance the two could be related. But how does stress affect your weight in the first place? For the most part it comes down to two things – the physical impact stress has on our bodies and the unhealthy behaviours some of us adopt when we’re feeling overwhelmed.

Stress and weight gain

One of the reasons stress can lead to weight gain is related to a hormone called cortisol. This is one of the hormones your body releases when you’re stressed: this is a natural mechanism that’s triggered whenever your brain thinks you’re in danger – the process is often called the fight or flight response. Along with other so-called ‘stress’ hormones, cortisol makes your breathing and heart rate faster and your blood pressure higher.
When you’re no longer in a stressful situation your hormones will usually return to their normal levels. However, too much pressure on too frequent a basis can keep your stress hormone levels almost permanently high. And since another thing high levels of cortisol can do is to increase your appetite, when you’re persistently stressed, you may also feel constantly hungry. Indeed, this may explain why many of us turn to comfort foods when we’re under pressure.
There is also some evidence that the human body burns calories more slowly than usual when it’s under stress, with one study concluding that stress may alter metabolism and promote obesity (iii). Another study, meanwhile, has found that chronically high cortisol levels are linked with abdominal (or visceral) fat – that is, fat around your middle (this is often the type that’s hard to budge, not to mention worse for your health than fat stored elsewhere) (iv).
But cortisol and other stress hormones such as adrenaline may not be the only hormones involved. According to a review of studies, stress may also increase levels of some hormones and chemicals involved in appetite regulation, including leptin and ghrelin (v).

Weight-gain behaviours

Besides these hormonal changes you may also develop one or more unhealthy habits when you’re frequently stressed out – some of which aren’t exactly good for your waistline:

  • Many people comfort eat when they’re stressed as they find it brings them some temporary relief

  • When you’re under a lot of stress you may not have the time or energy to think about meal planning, so you may simply choose the easiest and most accessible options – fast food, for instance, and less-than-healthy snacks

  • You may also be less likely to exercise regularly when you’re under pressure – in fact, being physically active may be the last thing on your mind

  • High levels of cortisol may affect your sleep patterns too. And if you have problems getting enough sleep when you’re stressed you may find yourself eating more than usual and making less healthy food choices, simply because you’re too tired to use self-control or to even think of eating well


Weight gain complications

On top of the health risks linked with chronic stress, gaining stress-related weight has several associated long-term impacts, including:

Carrying a lot of excess weight may also increase your risk of certain cancers, including pancreatic, bowel, breast, kidney and oesophageal cancers.

Stress and weight loss

While some people put on weight when they’re stressed, others experience the weight dropping off. Why this happens to some and not others isn’t clear, and to make matters even more complicated some people who previously gained weight as a result of being stressed may actually lose weight as a response to a different stressful situation at a different time.
Also, some of the stress hormones released when you’re under pressure don’t just make you hungrier, they can make you lose your appetite too. Meanwhile, when you’re stressed your digestion slows down. For some people this means they gain weight, but for others it causes gastrointestinal problems – and when you’re experiencing problems such as stomach aches, diarrhoea and constipation, you may not feel like eating much.
Even without any digestive discomfort you may not have much of an appetite, since stress can be so overwhelming it makes you unable to think about eating or any other aspect of your wellbeing. Some people also use exercise to cope with stress because the release of hormones called endorphins that comes with physical activity can make them feel better for a while. But if you’re also missing meals or otherwise not eating properly this can lead to even more weight loss – even nervous movements, such as fidgeting, can add to the number of calories you burn.

Should you be worried?

While for most people losing a few pounds or so isn’t a bad thing, if you’re losing weight because of stress there’s a chance you might end up being underweight (try the NHS BMI healthy weight calculator to find out if you’re underweight). And being underweight and malnourished can lead to health issues such as:

Speak to your GP if you’ve recently lost more than five per cent of your body weight unintentionally, if you’ve lost weight very quickly or you’re also experiencing other symptoms so they can rule out any possible underlying conditions. Meanwhile there’s information you may find useful in our articles Loss of appetite: Causes and how to cope and What does it mean to be underweight? 

What can you do?

If you’re losing or gaining weight because stress is disrupting your daily life, it’s a good idea to consider seeing your GP. Your doctor may, for instance, suggest you try talking therapies for stress management such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Alternatively if you’re aged 18 or older and live in England, you can access NHS talking therapies services without a referral from your GP – find out more by visiting Your GP may also be able to give you advice on a range of self-help coping techniques.
Meanwhile, eating a healthy balanced diet can help your body cope with stress more effectively, as it provides the nutrients you need to manage the effects of stress. But even with the best of intentions some of us may not manage to eat healthily all the time, especially during times of stress. This is when taking nutritional supplements may be helpful – especially ones that help with stress management.
The first supplement you may want to consider is a high strength multivitamin and mineral. This is ideal to help make sure you’re getting the main nutrients your body needs – choose a product with good levels of B vitamins – which support your nervous system – and zinc (levels of this mineral may be depleted when you’re under stress). There’s even some evidence that multivitamins could help you experience less anxiety and cope with stressful situations more effectively (vi).
Your bodys level of magnesium may be also lowered when youre under a lot of stress, with studies finding that larger-than-normal levels are excreted through urine during stressful times (vii). Some scientists believe taking magnesium may help you sleep better too if stress is keeping you awake at night (viii).
Taking high-strength fish oils may also be helpful: for instance, researchers writing in the medical journal Molecular Psychiatry have found daily supplements of the omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish may help your body resist the damaging effects of stress (ix). Try a good-quality high-strength fish oil supplement, or a supplement that sources its omega 3s from marine algae instead of fish if you’re a vegan or vegetarian. 
Other nutritional products you may want to try include theanine and lemon balm, both of which may help with relaxation. Sourced almost exclusively from green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine is a non-protein amino acid. Its thought to make you feel calmer by helping your brain produce alpha waves. And while some conventional medicines that help you relax can also make you feel sleepy, studies suggest theanine supplements can calm you down but still keep you feeling awake and alert (x). Researchers have discovered theanine may help you feel calm when faced with a stressful situation because it slows down your heart rate (xi). Some small-scale studies have found the herb lemon balm may help make you feel calmer too (xii).
There are things you can do to improve your diet if you’re losing or gaining weight because of stress – here are a few examples:

  • If you’ve gained weight, it’s important to try limiting the amount of comfort foods you eat – of course this is easier said than done, but distracting yourself by doing something else whenever you have a comfort food craving may be useful (activities that also help you feel calmer can be particularly beneficial). Also try eating smaller meals more regularly, as this could help keep your blood sugar levels stable (this means you’ll be less likely to experience the sugar lows that can lead to poor food choices)

  • If you’ve lost weight, try setting a reminder on your phone for meal times (this may be particularly useful if you keep forgetting to eat). And if you can’t face eating whole meals, try having regular healthy snacks throughout the day – ideally ones that are high in protein or healthy carbs such as avocados, bananas or peanut butter with rice cakes.


Need more information?

Dealing with stress and weight problems all at the same time isn’t easy. If you’re looking for advice about dealing with stress, take a look at the articles in the stress and anxiety section of our pharmacy health library. There’s also lots more information about coping with weight issues in our weight management pages.




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  12. Kennedy DO et al. (2003) "Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties." Neuropsychopharmacology. 28:1871-1881. Available at:

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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.

Our Author - Olivia Salter


Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.

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