Feeling stressed? Here's something that certainly won't help you feel more zen: People who suffer from long-term stress may also be at a higher risk for obesity, according to a new study published in Obesity.
To conduct the February 2017 study, researchers from the University College London took hair samples of over 2,500 men and women regularly over four years and analyzed their cortisol levels — aka the fight-or-flight hormone that's the body releases when you're stressed. The team found folks with higher levels of cortisol tended to have larger waistlines, higher body mass index (BMI), and weigh more than those with low levels of the stress hormone. What's more, people who were obese (a BMI of 30 or higher) had cortisol levels that clocked in especially high.
What gives? There are two main ways stress can make you gain more weight: For starters, your body reacts to stress by activating both the sympathetic nervous system — that fight-or-flight response that controls your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration — and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis — the system that controls your hormones. When you're chronically stressed, these two systems are being tapped over and over, according to March 2012 research. This combination puts your body in an anabolic state, meaning it can't convert food into energy as easily and instead encourages your body to store fat.
On top of the physiological roadblocks, long-term stress makes you more likely to stuff your face with bad-for-you foods. September 2013 research found that chronic stress affects the reward pathway in the brain, making you more sensitive to things that feel like a prize and in turn encouraging you to seek out sugary and fatty foods. Over time, this can actually rewire your brain to encourage you to compulsively eat more.
While researchers aren't sure whether stress causes weight gain or the other way around, they do know this isn't a connection to be taken lightly. On top of all the detrimental health effects of stress itself, there are the risks that come with obesity — namely, that carrying excess fat around your midsection also ups your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and early death.
Just one more reason to get your stress under control — stat!