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Unraveling the Link Between Stress, Hunger, and Weight Gain

Updated: Nov 12, 2023


Life is busy, and stress has become a pervasive issue that affects many aspects of our lives including our waistline and health. Chronic stress often leads to hormonal imbalances, fatigue, burnout, and ultimately, weight gain. Understanding the intricate connection between stress, hunger, and weight gain is crucial for those seeking a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. In this blog post, we will delve into the science behind stress hormones, hunger hormones, comfort food cravings, and overeating. Additionally, we will explore the importance of a whole foods-based diet in managing stress, achieving a healthy weight, balancing hormones, fighting fatigue, and promoting overall well-being.


Understanding the Science of Stress Hormones and Hunger Hormones:


When we experience stress, our bodies release cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. Cortisol plays a vital role in regulating our body's response to both psychological and physical stressors. However, prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can disrupt the delicate balance of hunger hormones, leading to increased appetite and overeating.


One of these hunger hormones is ghrelin, a major regulatory hormone of food intake, energy balance and body weight. Under chronic stress, ghrelin production increases (a lot!), leading to hard to ignore hunger signals and a strong desire for comforting, indulgent foods (1). What is even more vexing is that weight loss induces an increase of ghrelin hormone levels too (2). Have you ever noticed that you don’t crave salad when you are under stress but pizza, burger and fries or a big bowl of mac and cheese sounds amazing, or is that just me?


Additionally, stress impairs the function of another hormone called leptin, a hormone made by our fat cells, and which signals the brain to suppress appetite. When leptin levels are disrupted, the brain fails to receive proper signals of satiety, resulting in overeating and further weight gain. Leptin Resistance is a rising problem and strongly linked to weight gain. While the cause of leptin resistance is not 100 % clear, it is likely due to a combination of inflammation, genetics, and leptin hormone production gone haywire. Some studies suggest that there is as much as a 35% decrease in leptins ability to cross the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) in people struggling with obesity. This seems to translate into obese people having 4-5x lower levels of Leptin in the central nervous system where it signals fullness, when compared with people of normal weight (3).


Insulin is a major hormone that promotes the storage of glucose, a simple sugar absorbed from food into places such as muscle, liver, and fat cells for later use. When your cells stop responding to the hormone insulin, your glucose levels rise in your blood stream, prompting your pancreas to release more insulin. This is a condition called Insulin Resistance and is linked to type 2 diabetes, depression, heart disease and obesity. Chronic stress causes chronic high levels of cortisol, a glucocorticoid hormone inducing changes in adipose cells glucose metabolism leading to Insulin Resistance and weight gain (4, 5).


Comfort Food Cravings and Weight Gain:

We often seek comfort in food during times of stress, turning to foods that tend to be caloric and processed foods that provide temporary relief. Comfort foods release endorphins, a type of feel-good hormones which our bodies crave in times of high stress. However, comfort foods are typically nutrient-poor and loaded with fats, sugars, and additives. They taste divine, but their staying power to keep our stomachs full, which lowers ghrelin levels, and improves leptin’s ability to cross the BBB is not great. Nor do these foods address the original cause of stress cravings. Having a healthy relationship with food means we get to enjoy craveable foods, but frequent indulgence leads to an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating, weight gain, and further stress.


Maintaining a Whole Foods-Based Diet for Stress Management and Healthy Weight:


During times of high stress, prioritizing a whole foods-based diet is crucial for maintaining both physical and mental well-being. While there is an abundance of conflicting dietary advice, incorporating colorful, organic fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and minimizing processed and sugary treats is universally beneficial. Additionally, daily consumption of fermented foods reduces perceptions of stress by improving our microbiome (gut flora), which in turn lowers inflammation levels in the whole body and boosts the production of a few key neurotransmitters that combat our stress responses such as GABA (calming) and Serotonin (happiness) (6).


Whole foods provide satiating fiber and protein, essential nutrients like vitamins, and minerals that support optimal energy levels and aid in stress reduction. By consuming a diverse range of nutrient-dense foods, we nourish our bodies, help balance our hormones, and alleviate the impact of chronic stress. When we eat for energy, we can be more physically active which is key to any treatment plan for stress reduction, weight loss and maintaining normal ratios of ghrelin, leptin, and insulin, three major hormones of weight balance.


Positive Steps Towards Managing Stress:

Managing stress is essential for maintaining a healthy weight, reducing the risk of chronic diseases, and enhancing overall well-being. Here are four proactive steps you can take:

  1. Prioritize self-care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and self-care, such as meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature. These practices can help alleviate stress, improve sleep quality, and restore hormonal balance.

  2. Regular exercise: Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Incorporating regular exercise into your routine helps mitigate the negative effects of stress while promoting weight loss and overall body strength.

  3. Seek support: Don't be afraid to reach out for help. Whether it's through therapy, counseling, or support groups, having someone to talk to can provide valuable insights and practical coping strategies for managing stress.

  4. Consume fermented foods daily for a healthy microbiome and stress and weight related hormone balance.

Conclusion:


Understanding the connection between stress, hunger, and weight gain is crucial for achieving long-term health and well-being. By prioritizing a whole foods-based diet and adopting positive lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and self-care practices, you can embark on a journey toward stress management, healthy weight maintenance, hormonal balance, and increased energy levels. If you're seeking natural alternatives and professional guidance in managing stress levels, balancing stress hormones, and promoting safe and sustainable weight loss, consider reaching out to Rachel Winstedt, ND. Take control of your stress and start living a healthier, happier life today.


Citations:

  • Young ER, Jialal I. Biochemistry, Ghrelin. [Updated 2023 Jul 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547692/

  • Thom G, McIntosh A, Messow CM, Leslie WS, Barnes AC, Brosnahan N, McCombie L, Malkova D, Al-Mrabeh A, Zhyzhneuskaya S, Welsh P, Sattar N, Taylor R, Lean MEJ. Weight loss-induced increase in fasting ghrelin concentration is a predictor of weight regain: Evidence from the Diabetes Remission Clinical Trial (DiRECT). Diabetes Obes Metab. 2020 Dec 2. doi: 10.1111/dom.14274. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33369058.

  • 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

  • Geer EB, Islam J, Buettner C. Mechanisms of glucocorticoid-induced insulin resistance: focus on adipose tissue function and lipid metabolism. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2014 Mar;43(1):75-102. doi: 10.1016/j.ecl.2013.10.005. PMID: 24582093; PMCID: PMC3942672.

  • Joseph JJ, Golden SH. Cortisol dysregulation: the bidirectional link between stress, depression, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2017 Mar;1391(1):20-34. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13217. Epub 2016 Oct 17. PMID: 27750377; PMCID: PMC5334212.

  • Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiol Stress. 2017 Mar 19;7:124-136. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001. PMID: 29276734; PMCID: PMC5736941.



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