Understanding the profound impact of stress on your body is key to achieving holistic health. When we're stressed or anxious, our bodies release two hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones provide an evolutionary advantage, allowing us to react to challenging situations by increasing alertness and quickening our heartbeat1. However, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to a range of physical and mental symptoms, affecting your overall health. Together, let’s explore these symptoms below to understand how they can impact our weight loss journey:
The Hormonal Impact of Stress
When stress becomes a constant companion, your body increases the release of cortisol and adrenaline regularly, potentially impacting your overall well-being and weight loss journey2. These hormones, while essential in short bursts for navigating challenging situations, can contribute to symptoms such as problems sleeping, persistent fatigue, headaches, chest pains, indigestion, and heartburn. It also increases your appetite, slowing your metabolism and increasing insulin resistance leading to more stored body fat to cope with stressful situations3.
This may affect your weight-loss journey in the following ways:
1. Reduced Sleep:
Research has shown that poor sleep quality can dysregulate the appetite control system which can alter our metabolic rate, with a negative impact on weight maintenance or weight loss interventions. There has also been research to show that inadequate sleep links to elevated energy intake, driven by increased saturated fat consumption, leading to weight gain and higher BMI. It correlates with poor eating habits, including more meals, snacks, night-time eating, and a preference for high-energy, low-nutrient foods like fast food, sugar, and fats4.
2. Persistent Fatigue:
Fatigue can affect our decision-making, meaning that when we are tired we may not make decisions which are aligned with our weight-loss goals. Additionally, if we are tired, we may not have the motivation to exercise or make meals for ourselves that align with our weight loss journey, but instead turn to sedentary behaviours and comforting, easy food which has higher calories that the food we are aiming to consume. Additionally, it is important to ensure we are consuming a balanced diet which meets all of our nutrition needs and is not causing a restrictive diet in key micronutrients such as iron and vitamin B125.
As well as understanding the physical and mental symptoms of hormones on weight loss, let’s explore the role of particular hormones and how they regulate our weight.
Together, let’s explore the role of each hormone involved in appetite regulation and how this can affect our weight.
Often referred to as the "satiety hormone," leptin is produced by fat cells and signals to the brain that we are full. Higher levels of leptin are generally associated with reduced appetite. One of the primary challenges in weight loss is leptin resistance. High levels of body fat can reduce responsiveness to the satiety signals of leptin, causing increased hunger and overeating6.
Known as the "hunger hormone," ghrelin is produced in the stomach and stimulates appetite. It increases before meals and decreases after eating, making it a key player in weight loss efforts6.
Produced by the pancreas, insulin plays a central role in regulating blood sugar levels and influencing fat storage in the body. Insulin resistance is often associated with obesity therefore improving insulin sensitivity through dietary modifications and exercise can be key to weight loss success.
Commonly referred to as our stress hormone, cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. Too much cortisol may lead to an increase in fat storage, especially around the abdominal area, when levels are chronically elevated. Chronic stress causes elevated cortisol levels, promoting fat storage particularly around the abdominal area. Stress management techniques like meditation and exercise can help mitigate this effect as explained below3.
5. Thyroid Hormones:
Specifically named T3 and T4, our thyroid hormones play a crucial role in regulating metabolism. An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can slow down metabolism and make weight loss more challenging. If you suspect thyroid issues are hindering your weight loss, consult with a healthcare.
Weight loss is a multifaceted journey, and understanding the role of hormones is just one piece of the puzzle. It's important to remember that individual responses to hormonal changes can vary greatly, but understanding this connection allows us to make informed decisions and embark on a sustainable path to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Physical Impact of Stress:
Stress can manifest in various ways, and your body might respond with various symptoms. These symptoms, as listed below, may impact our motivation and ability to focus on our weight management journey and lead to unhealthy behaviours, such as avoiding exercise.
- Stomach problems, stress headaches and other random pains including muscle pain or tension.
- Skin reactions, like stress rashes and hives
- Feeling dizzy, sick or faint
- High blood pressure and chest pains*2.
Furthermore, stress can cause changes to your appetite. This may mean that you use food as a coping mechanism for stress, leading to overconsumption of food and a negative impact on your weight management journey. Moreover, it may lead to a lack of appetite that later leads to bingeing on food when your hunger returns. Regular, balanced eating is vital for your weight loss journey and a healthy lifestyle.
Mental Impact of Stress
No matter how or when stress hits, it’s a horrible feeling. It can lead to feelings of irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulties with concentration impacting your overall mental health. Being able to recognise these mental symptoms is key to creating a holistic approach to managing stress8.
Often these symptoms are associated with stress will have an impact on our lifestyle, which may cause us to make unhealthy choices with our diet, exercise, and other habits.
Many people find that In times of stress, they resort to habits like binge eating9, consuming increased amounts of alcohol, skipping meals, staying up late, and avoiding exercise. These lifestyle choices can, in turn, exacerbate both the mental and physical consequences of stress, and affect our weight management journey by causing chaos and uncertainty.
1. Strategies to Manage Stress:
As part of your weight management journey and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it is important that you’re equipped with strategies to address both the physical and mental aspects of stress to support your overall wellbeing. There are various strategies available to you to effectively manage stress, and we’ve picked a few to share with you:
2. Mindfulness and Meditation:
Centre your thoughts and promote a sense of calm. It may seem hard at first, but meditation allows you to bring yourself back to the present moment in times of stress, which is essential to prevent stress escalation.
Try apps like “Calm” by starting with a 60 second meditation, building on this when you feel ready.
Remember, the key is bringing yourself back to the present moment. No matter how much your mind wanders, bring yourself back and notice your ability to focus on now will increase overtime10.
3. Deep Breathing Exercises:
Practise deep breathing exercises to activate your body's relaxation response. Focus on slow, deep breaths to calm your nervous system and reduce stress levels11. Deep breathing gives us focus, taking us away from the present stress and letting us focus on our breathing which helps to ground us.
Why not try box breathing? This method asks you to breathe in for 4 seconds, to hold for 4 seconds, to breathe out for 4 seconds, and hold for a final 4 seconds.
4. Physical Activity:
Physical activity may seem out of reach at the start of your weight management journey. We often see physical activity as something extremely intense, however finding something you enjoy and makes you feel good is essential!
By incorporating regular physical activity into your routine, you will not only enhance your weight management journey, but you will enhance your overall wellbeing too!. Exercise is not only beneficial for your physical health but also acts as a natural stress reliever, releasing endorphins that improve mood. For more information revisit week 3 when we shared healthy exercise ideas.
5. Set Boundaries:
If you are finding a situation stressful, or it isn’t something that aligns with your goals, know that it is okay to say “no”!
Learning to say no when necessary and setting clear boundaries to prevent overcommitting is not only helpful to reduce stress, but it will help you to realise your self-worth. By prioritising self-care and allocating time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation, your stress levels will reduce and you will give yourself time to focus on what’s important for you.
With that in mind, make sure that you are enjoying yourself. Whilst your weight management journey is important, make sure to stay connected to those that you love and find healthy and sustainable ways to remain integrated in your day to day life.
6. Social Interactions:
In order to stay connected to your friends and family, talk to friends, family, or join a group to discuss your goals with your weight management journey. Social connections can provide emotional support and these valuable perspectives can help you to cope with stress, especially if you are feeling low or demotivated around your journey.
Download our Stress Management worksheet to offload your concerns and put actions into place to navigate and manage your stress.
Remember, stress management is a personal journey, and different strategies work for different individuals. It’s a good idea to experiment with various techniques to discover what best suits your needs and fits into your lifestyle. Building a repertoire of stress management tools can empower you to navigate life's challenges with resilience and balance.
* If you are experiencing chest pain or high blood pressure or you’re concerned about them or feel you have more severe stress then you should consult with one of our clinical team.
- Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. Physiology, Stress Reaction. [Updated 2022 Sep 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
- NHS. (n.d.). Stress. Every Mind Matters. Retrieved December 15, 2023, from https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/stress/#:~:text=When%20we%20are%20stressed%2C%20our,feels%20out%20of%20our%20control.
- Hewagalamulage SD, Lee TK, Clarke IJ, Henry BA. Stress, cortisol, and obesity: a role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. Domest Anim Endocrinol. 2016 Jul;56 Suppl:S112-20. doi: 10.1016/j.domaniend.2016.03.004. Epub 2016 Mar 31. PMID: 27345309.
- Papatriantafyllou E, Efthymiou D, Zoumbaneas E, Popescu CA, Vassilopoulou E. Sleep Deprivation: Effects on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance. Nutrients. 2022 Apr 8;14(8):1549. doi: 10.3390/nu14081549. PMID: 35458110; PMCID: PMC9031614.
- Wlodek D, Gonzales M. Decreased energy levels can cause and sustain obesity. J Theor Biol. 2003 Nov 7;225(1):33-44. doi: 10.1016/s0022-5193(03)00218-2. PMID: 14559057.
- Izquierdo AG, Crujeiras AB, Casanueva FF, Carreira MC. Leptin, Obesity, and Leptin Resistance: Where Are We 25 Years Later? Nutrients. 2019; 11(11):2704. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112704
- Ibrahim Abdalla MM. Ghrelin - Physiological Functions and Regulation. Eur Endocrinol. 2015 Aug;11(2):90-95. doi: 10.17925/EE.2015.11.02.90. Epub 2015 Aug 19. PMID: 29632576; PMCID: PMC5819073.