The Connection Between Stress Management And Weight Loss

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Like depression and anxiety, there is a physiological and psychological connection between our brain and our bodies when we are under stress. In times of increased stress there are two different hormones that are released in the brain to help the body prepare for any type of attack or defense. These are the hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

Adrenaline and cortisol both increase heart rate, blood flow to the muscles as well physical alertness. However, cortisol has other effects as well. It will promote the release of fat cells, flooding the body with fuel needed for fight or flight. It will also trigger the generation of new fat cells to store fuel needed for energy bursts. Since no energy bursts typically occur with emotional stress, this added fat activity in the body translates directly into weight gain.

Just how cortisol triggers a craving for the high fat, high calorie and high carbohydrate foods is not clearly understood. However, resent research tends to show that cortisol may impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which is the key in appetite control and regulation. Once cortisol prompts the consumption of energy dense foods, the brain receives a hormonal reward response, creating a positive reward. The more frequently stress is experienced and the person eats these foods, the more that the brain develops a pattern of behavior.  Soon stress becomes linked to eating specific foods to increase the reward response and decrease HPA activity. This can trigger a pattern of behavior that includes consuming those high energy foods as way to mediate the internal stress levels1.

The human body may also actually crave specific amounts of foods in response to the stress hormones that are present in the brain and circulatory system. To study this effect, a group of 1355 American men and women were followed from 1995 to 2004. The study assessed changes in BMI (Body Mass Index) as compared to self reports of stress related to interpersonal life, work, life constraints, financial issues and other factors. Women that had higher BMI through the study reported higher stress levels in job related demands, perceived constraints in life and stress in relationships with family. Financial factors, like job related demands, were found in the stressors reported by both men and women that experienced an increase in their BMI2.

Stress may also occur because of weight loss related issues. In a study that tested women of different ethnic groups while dieting some distinct differences were noted. The study tested for self-efficacy in staying in control of eating while attempting to lose weight. Overall white females were more likely to report high levels of stress due to goal failure or lack of self-control while attempting to lose weight. The high level of negative attitudes towards their ability to self-control contributed to an undermining of self-efficacy in future dieting attempts3. The research tends to indicate that for some people the stress of possibly “falling of the diet” or making a mistake in health food choices may increase their stress levels and contribute to potential diet failure.

Other factors that are associated with high stress levels, such as limited sleep or disturbed sleep, also have an impact on weight gain. High stress levels are linked to sleep disturbances that range from inability to sleep or insomnia, daytime sleepiness that is excessive or difficulty in getting to sleep or staying asleep. A study found that individuals that were obese, with a body mass index of greater than 30, had a greater reported number of sleep disturbances, shorter durations of sleep and reported higher levels of emotional stress than study members that had a body mass index of less that 30. The researchers also reported that the effects of stress on obese individuals in the study was higher for women than men4.

Dealing With Stress

Handling stress is not as easy as reading a good book or listening to a relaxation tape and doing some progressive muscle relaxation exercises. Stress is all around and for most people and it cannot simply be turned off when it is time to relax. Learning about specific lifestyle changes and developing a way to minimize the stress in your life takes a highly personalized and very individual plan.

One way to work at controlling stress in your life is to seek counseling. A counselor can assist in looking at your life and determining where stress can be avoided or minimized. In addition a counselor can also work with you on learning breathing and exercise techniques as well as mental exercises that can allow you to have peace and harmony in your life.

Phone therapeutic counseling has proven to be effective for modifying lifestyle behaviors. The phone allows frequent contact between the client and the therapist or counselor which is important for reinforcing new behavior maintenance strategies. The telephone counseling can be specifically tailored to the client’s needs. The social support along with anonymity can is less stressful than face-to-face contact, convenient and efficient5. Another benefit is that easy accessibility makes it possible for the weight loss counselor to use a personalized approach which is critical when someone is experiencing a high stress leel.

Counseling can be done in person or via the internet. E-counseling or e-therapy is increasingly becoming a popular option for professionals, busy parents and those trying to deal with the million and one things that have to be done in a day. Online sessions via chat systems or email will provide education, exercises and a support person that is uniquely trained to help with your goals of weight loss and living a stress free, healthy and happy life.


1 Adams, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Psychology and Behavior , 449-458.

2 Block, J. P., He, Y., Zaslavsky, A. M., et al. (2009). Psychosocial Stress and Change in Weight Among US Adults. American Journal of Epidemiology , 181-192.

3 Moore, D. J. (2011). Emotional distress about weight gain and attitude to goal achievement failure as predictors of self-regulatory efficacy: Does ethnicity make a difference? Journal of Health Psychology , 895-904.

4 Vgontzas, A. N., Lin, H.-M., Papaliaga, M., et al. (2008). Short sleep duration and obesity: the role of emotional stress and sleep disturbancesSleep duration, sleep disturbance, stress, obesity. International Journal of Obesity , 801-809.

5Boucher, Jackie L; Nicolaas P. Pronk and  Eve M. Gehling. Telephone-Based Lifestyle Counseling. (4 November 2011) Diabetes Spectrum, v 13 (4). 190.


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