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Can Stress Make You Gain Weight?

Do you notice when you experience stress, you may also feel digestive discomfort – pain, bloating, low energy, or some other type of sign and symptom?

If you can relate to any of these feelings, you are not alone.

In practice, I frequently encounter clients that live stressful lives and may underestimate that stress affects every part of their being.

Many people don't realize is that if you are under constant pressure, it's going to be a challenge to reach any goals related to health/wellness/fitness – including unexplained weight gain around the abdominal region.

For example, recall how you feel when you're fatigued. When you feel run down, you probably don't have the energy to exercise, and you might even reach for that quick fix to boost your energy, such as eating sugary, processed foods or craving salty foods. You may feel good for the moment, but you're back on the roller coaster of spiked energy to crashing again, experiencing fatigue, brain fog, irritability, and possibly bloating. Sound familiar?

So, how does stress cause digestive problems such as pain, bloating, or weight gain around the waist?

Numerous studies have suggested that stress may have a critical role in how you are feeling. The relationship between psychological stress and gastrointestinal distress can trigger and worsen digestive problems and vice versa. Your "gut feeling" may be telling you something, and it's not all in your head. How does stress relate to the "Brain-Gut Axis"? According to a review by Mayer (2000):

"Functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men. These disorders have no apparent physical cause — such as infection or cancer — yet result in pain, bloating, and other discomfort".

A complex network of nerves extends from the brain to all major organs of the body. It is regulated through the autonomic nervous system that supports life-sustaining functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure. The autonomic nervous system has two major divisions – sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When a person experiences stress, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the "fight or flight" response. Once the stressful situation has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system helps to calm the body down. Both nervous systems, sympathetic and parasympathetic, also interact with the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion.

The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as a "second brain" because it relies on the same types of neurons and neurotransmitters found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). When food enters the gut, the neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of intestinal contractions that propel the food, further along, breaking it down into nutrients and waste. At the same time, the enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters such as serotonin to communicate and interact with the central nervous system.

So, the "brain-gut axis" helps explain why researchers are interested in understanding how psychological or social stress might cause digestive problems. When a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, for example, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to face a perceived threat.

In response to less severe stress, such as public speaking, the digestive process may slow or be temporarily disrupted, causing abdominal pain and other symptoms of functional gastrointestinal discomfort. Of course, it can work the other way: persistent gastrointestinal problems can heighten anxiety and stress (Mayer, 2000).

What does the hormone cortisol have to do with stress?

A typical response from the body is for the adrenal glands to secrete the "stress hormone" cortisol. As the body continues to secrete large amounts of cortisol, its presence will have long-term effects on the immune and digestive systems. Potentially causing fatigue or burnout of the adrenal glands will lead to a more extensive set of problems to balance other hormonal functions if it's out of balance itself.

Overall, if you're experiencing chronic stress, worry, depression or anxiety and experience the following signs and symptoms:

• Low energy

• Fatigue

• Brain fog

• Poor concentration

• Irritability

• Weight gain

• Digestive problems

• Difficulty sleeping

• Trouble waking up in the morning

Contact me today to schedule a complimentary Discovery Session so you can take the next step with an integrative approach so you feel like yourself again!


MAYER EA. The neurobiology of stress and gastrointestinal disease, Gut 2000; 47:861-869.


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