How stress can make you gain weight (and what to do about it)

Stress affects your body as well as your mind. Turn off and relax to drop lbs

Woman making the connection between stress and weight gain
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It's a stressful time to be doing anything right now. Although the coronavirus vaccine programmes rolling out across the world have the virus in retreat, the background anxiety of the pandemic is still very much alive. Thanks to all the job losses, health problems and mental health issues that have emerged as a result of the pandemic, we're all more stressed than ever. 

If we're stressed all the time, it can lead to an excess amount of a hormone in our body called cortisol, which is more commonly known as "the stress hormone". Cortisol production is a natural process, but too much of it can play havoc with our moods, sense of self, and even our waistlines. 

A study from scientists at Yale University sought to examine cortisol's link with fat. Studying slender premenopausal women, the scientists found those with a greater predicator of stress tended to be the ones with the most abdominal fat, as well as the ones who felt worse about themselves. 

Blue light causing stress and weight gain

(Image credit: Getty Images)

"We found that women with greater abdominal fat had more negative moods and higher levels of life stress," said Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., lead investigator on the study. "Greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat."

So how can we prevent a build-up of cortisol? One way is to decrease our exposure to "blue light", which is the light emitted from screens such as a laptop, phone or television. A study published in Germany found excess blue light exposure can increase our production of cortisol and it can also suppress melatonin, disrupting our natural sleep-wake cycles, so getting a good night's sleep is also essential. 

The best mattress toppers are an inexpensive way to make your bed much comfier, and the best diffuser can spray relaxing scents like lavender and chamomile into the air to help you drift off.

Of course, two of the best ways to relax and ease the levels of cortisol in your body are yoga and meditation. Learning how to meditate will suppress your stress hormones and slow yourself down a bit, and is an excellent tool to fall back on either as a daily practice, or when you feel the stress overwhelming you. 

Yoga combines this zen aspect with gentle (and sometimes vigorous) exercise and stretching, which is known to activate the reward centres in your brain, releasing dopamine and serotonin.

Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.