Chronic stress has powerful effects on the body’s production and storage of fat. High levels of cortisol induced by stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity. This adds to all the other ways that stress promotes obesity.

There are various ways stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity. Most people are aware of behavioral and emotional aspects of stress-related obesity. People who are often stressed out have trouble maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

They may eat often even when they’re not hungry — this is called stress eating or emotional eating — or they may eat high-calorie fast foods because they don’t have time to prepare something healthy. Additionally, they may be too exhausted to exercise regularly when they’re under a lot of stress.

Physiological factors — specifically, cortisol and cortisol-induced insulin — are the main reasons why stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity. When faced with a stressful situation, the body triggers the stress response or fight-or-flight response. This leads to the secretion of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones along with an increase of blood pressure, breathing and heart rate.

The normal stress response causes the rapid increase of heart rate and respiratory rate as well as blood pressure. Available energy is increased while digestion and other non-essential processes are decreased. So, the body is primed to fight or take flight and escape, whichever is needed.

The natural stress response is usually short-term and self-regulating. When the threat is gone, the body returns to normal. As cortisol and adrenaline levels drop, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure as well as energy levels return to their baseline levels. Other systems inhibited by the stress response return to their regular activities.

The natural stress response goes awry when stress is constant and excessive. In today’s society, most people are inundated with overwhelming stress.  For those constantly dealing with excessive and chronic stress, the body’s fight-or-flight response is constantly on. In turn, the resulting stress hormones released are chronically high.

Chronically high levels of cortisol plays a big role in the development of obesity.

  • Cortisol helps the body handle stress; so, when stress goes up, cortisol also goes up. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism during stressful situations. This leads to increased blood sugar levels required for fast energy. In turn, this stimulates insulin release which can lead to an increase in appetite.
  • Adrenaline increases alertness and metabolism by helping fat cells release energy.

When the immediate stress is over, the adrenaline levels return to normal. But, cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance after stress. One of the ways it gets things back to balance is by increasing appetite to replace the carbohydrate and fat used for the flight or fight response.

The problem is that in today’s society, stress-causing situations — such as, traffic jams or computer malfunctions — do not really require the body to use up a lot of energy. So, cortisol ends up causing the body to refuel after stress even when it doesn’t really need to refuel. This excess fuel or glucose is converted into fat resulting in increased storage of fat.

What makes matters worse is that cortisol-induced high levels of insulin also leads to increased production and storage of fat. So, exposure to chronically high levels of cortisol and cortisol-induced insulin are the main reasons why stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity.

By: Allie Mendoza