When stress can cause weight gain

Specific Health Concern 9 April 2018



You’ve probably heard yourself say this many times over.. “I’m watching what I eat, I’m exercising but I’m still gaining weight.. it must just be stress!” 

OK, so that might seem like a stupid excuse, but you’re right – Not only does stress cause weight gain, but this excess weight tends to accumulate around the hips and abdomen! 

Article written by Ariane Monnami, nutritionist specialised in Neuronutrition. 


One size doesn’t fit all 

Why do some people lose weight when stressed whilst others gain weight? 

In stressful situations, our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline or cortisol, the famous ‘stress hormones’… but, these two hormones don’t act in the same way: 

Adrenaline, released in times of acute stress, is a lipolytic hormone. This means that it burns fat to quickly release energy allowing you to ‘escape’ and ‘fight’. 

If you’re the type of person who gets all worked up as soon as you feel ‘attacked’, you most probably never struggle with weight management. 

On the contrary, when stress extends over a long period, you’ll start producing cortisol. This is especially the case if you are unable to react, either because of work overload, personal or family conflicts, harassment, noise, lack of time… and unfortunately, cortisol causes weight gain! 


Zoom on cortisol and weight gain 

Cortisol releases the stocked sugars in the liver to allow energy to be delivered to cells. This causes the glycemic level (level of sugar in the blood) to increase dramatically which then increases insulin production – Insulin is the hormone which stores fat. 

Any sugar which is not used to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ – something which your good morals tell you absolutely not to do! – will eventually end up being stored as ‘extra energy’ around your abdomen, otherwise known as love handles.. 

And that’s not everything!

With a lower amount of sugar stored in the liver, the cortisol will start attacking proteins in muscles to also convert them into sugars. On top of this, insuline production only continues to increase as well as fat storage…

So, a prolonged period of cortisol production will cause weight gain around your abdomen and your arm and leg muscles to disappear.. maybe not quite the desirable figure you had hoped for! 

Last but not least, cortisol also increases water retention which can cause significant weight fluctuation from one day to another. 


Morphology: Do you have excess fat due to stress? 

Excess fat may be linked to an excess in cortisol if your body has any of the following characteristics: 

  • slim, almost thin looking arms and legs
  • a defined waist, however with ‘love handles’ around your abdomen under your belly button and lower back

You might also find that you struggle to lose weight, even if you watch your diet and exercise very closely.


Make sure to get enough sleep

Cortisol production varies throughout the day, known by doctors as the nycthemeral cycle. 

Cortisol production is at its greatest at the beginning of the day, to give the body enough energy to get going. However, if the cycle is disturbed, for example with a large meal in the evening or insomnia, this spike in cortisol will instead occur around 2am, causing a sudden feeling of alertness. This will then have consequences on the day ahead which might include spikes in blood sugar and periods of fatigue, all of which usually results in even more stress. 


How to get back on track? 

  1. Regularly take magnesium supplements, a very powerful and natural anti-stress agent. 
  2. Make use of relaxation methods such as phytotherapy.
  3. Find a way to destress with relaxation, meditation or cardiac coherence. 
  4. Have a lighter evening meal, avoiding sugar and alcohol. 
  5. Learn to react to daily challenges in a constructive way. 
  6. Make time for moderate physical activity, at least two hours before going to bed. 
  7. Take a lukewarm shower before going to bed. 



  • Dr Eric Berg The 7 Principles of Fat Burning: Get Healthy, Lose Weight and Keep It Off!