The stress and weight loss connection: How to manage it

Stress has a huge impact on our mind and body.

Written by
Gemma Kaczerepa
Medically reviewed by
Dr Claudia Xiao
Last updated
April 18, 2024
6
7
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The stress and weight loss connection: How to manage it
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We know pretty well that stress has a huge impact on our mind and body: it can make our hearts beat faster, our breathing quicken, our gut become wonky and our mood sour. It can also affect our weight.

In fact, stress and weight are very closely intertwined. Here's what you should know about stress, weight loss, and what you can do if you’ve lost weight after going through a particularly trying period.

Can stress cause rapid weight loss?

It absolutely can. When they’re stressed, many people either put on or lose weight. They might turn to comfort foods to help get them through a rough period, eventually leading to weight gain. Or, stress may decrease their appetite, making them eat less (or not much at all) and lose weight, sometimes very quickly [1].

But it’s worth noting the difference between different types of stress here and how they can impact your weight. Acute stress happens immediately after a stressful event, such as losing your job or splitting with a partner. Chronic stress is more ongoing, which you might experience as a result of a high-pressure job or growing money issues.

While it’s not necessarily true for everyone, research shows that it’s acute stress that often leads to unintentional weight loss, because it suppresses your appetite. On the other hand, chronic stress can cause weight gain because it tends to make people overeat [2][3].

Weight loss can also come about as a side effect of related mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Why can stress cause weight loss?

We know stress has a massive impact on your body. It affects almost every part of your inner workings, including your musculoskeletal, respiratory, nervous and cardiovascular systems [1]. 

On top of these, acute stress does several things to your gastrointestinal system, which can trigger unexplained weight loss. Here’s how.

It suppresses your appetite

Heard of the fight or flight response? It happens when you’re faced with a stressful situation. To enable you to either confront the situation head-on or escape as quickly as possible, your body produces 2 hormones — cortisol and adrenaline, known as the stress hormones — that make it easier to act.

Cortisol delivers extra energy to different parts of your body — but it also blocks certain bodily functions so your body can focus on what’s in front of it. Your gastrointestinal system is one of the things that’s temporarily paused [1]. During this brief hiatus, your appetite might not be as big as usual.

Adrenaline also helps your body respond to the situation. However, during acutely stressful situations, it can suppress your appetite [3].

It causes discomfort in your gut

Because stress directly impacts your gastrointestinal system, it can cause rather unpleasant side effects like pain, nausea, bloating, gas and general discomfort. In some cases, it can even cause vomiting [1].

If you’re experiencing any of these, it’s unsurprising you wouldn’t want (or be able) to eat a whole lot.

It affects your metabolism

If the stress is more ongoing, it can actually have lasting effects on your metabolism. In a stressful scenario, your body activates something known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is a series of events that drive your response to stress and release the hormones necessary to deal with a challenging situation [1].

While these events are vital in the immediate term, chronic stress can impact communication between the HPA axis and your immune system. As a result, your eating habits can be altered and your metabolism impaired.

It uses up more energy

After a quick burst of energy as a result of the fight or flight response, you might feel more compelled to exercise to burn it off. Or, you might engage in compulsive activities like pacing or foot tapping. All of these obviously burn calories and can result in weight loss.

How can you tell if stress is related to weight loss?

Beyond losing weight, there are other signs that you’re stressed and that your weight loss might be a result [4][5]. They can include:

  • Irritability or feeling on edge
  • Mood changes
  • Anxiety or constant worry
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Insomnia or other sleep problems
  • Trouble breathing
  • Exhaustion
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

If these symptoms persist for longer than 2 weeks, we recommend having a chat with your doctor as these symptoms can also overlap with anxiety and depression.

How to manage stress-related weight loss

If you’re losing weight through stress, know that there are ways to manage it. Here’s how.

Get to the root of the problem

Your first step should be to try and get your stress levels in check — after all, that’s the root of the issue. 

See if you can pinpoint what’s causing the stress. It could be job or relationship problems, for example. Once you’ve figured this out, you can work on resolving the problem. 

Perhaps you can find some new ways to manage your time or workload, or maybe you can chat with your partner about dealing with any issues between you.

Try stress management techniques

There are numerous ways to manage stress. Exercise is a great one, as it releases endorphins that can boost your mood and reduce your stress levels [6]. Even a 30-minute brisk walk on most days of the week is beneficial.

Other stress management techniques include journalling, meditation, breathing exercises, listening to music or simply doing activities that make you feel good.

You could also consider a stress management supplement to help curb your stress levels. Kin’s Ultra Calm is a fantastic option, containing a bunch of clinically proven ingredients designed to naturally reduce stress and anxiety, boost your mood and support better sleep.

Seek support

There’s absolutely no shame in reaching out if you need support. You could chat with your family or closest mates, or even get in touch with a professional like a psychologist or therapist. They can work through the issue causing you stress and recommend stress management techniques to help you overcome it.

Get enough sleep

Sleep is often one of the first things to go out the window when you’re stressed. This is why it pays to work at getting good-quality rest.

To improve your chances of achieving decent sleep, there are several things you can do, which are known as sleep hygiene

Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Make your bedroom more conducive to quality sleep by making it dark and quiet. Cut caffeine, cigarettes and booze right before bed, and avoid using your phone or computer close to bedtime too [7][8].

Eat regularly

As hard as it can be to stomach food when you’re stressed, see if you can maintain something of a regular eating pattern.

If you’re prone to skipping meals, set up alerts on your computer or phone reminding you to eat. It doesn’t have to be a huge meal; even a snack is worthwhile, and it can keep your blood sugar levels stable which may result in fewer mood swings. 

If you want something quick but filling, a meal replacement shake can be helpful. Pilot’s Weight Reset Shakes are conveniently formulated to take care of your dietary needs.

They contain 20 vitamins and minerals to keep your mental and physical health and immune system in good nick, fibre to help you feel full and support your digestive system, and pre and probiotics for a happy gut — all of which need extra support when you’re stressed.

How to holistically approach weight loss

Skipping meals isn’t exactly the healthiest or most sustainable way to get rid of unwanted body weight. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, here are the best means to do so.

Eat well

What you eat is one of the most crucial factors when it comes to healthy weight loss. But this doesn’t mean turning to crash diets that promise instant results. Most of the time, these are totally unsustainable and can even lead to regaining weight.

Instead, focus on creating a viable eating plan that incorporates plenty of fresh fruit and veg, whole grains and healthy fats. See if you can avoid foods that are processed or high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.

Exercise regularly

Exercise is also important. If you’re new to it, start with a 30-minute walk on most days of the week and build up to more moderate to high-intensity forms of exercise over time. Research shows these types of exercise — think activities like running and cycling — are best for weight loss [9].

Resistance training, which includes free weights, squats, lunges and sit-ups, is also great for building muscle. More muscle mass helps you burn extra fat.

Get rid of certain habits

Excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and not drinking enough water can all contribute to weight gain, as well as a bunch of other health issues. 

See which of these habits you can eradicate. Try to stick to a moderate amount of alcohol, give up the smokes and maintain your water intake. Aim for 3 litres of water (about 12 cups) each day, or more in hot weather or if you exercise a lot [10].

Try a weight loss program

Need a bit of support? Consider jumping on board a weight loss program. Pilot's Metabolic Reset Program combines modern medicines and health coaching so you can approach weight loss healthily and sustainably. 

You’ll also have access to nutritional and fitness advice, as well as a private community of other blokes who are on the same journey, giving you the support you need to lose weight and keep it off for good.

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