By Martha Lee Anne Laret, MS, RDN, LDN 

When it comes to stress-related weight changes, most of us tend to focus solely on weight, turning to diets or restrictions to “fix” the problem; however, prioritizing weight can lead to weight cycling or worsened health as we are not addressing (and even possibly deepening) the root causes of the weight changes.

What Exactly is Stress? 

According to the scientific community, “Stress is a universal non-specific response to any pressure or demand.” In short, stress is simply a condition caused by a stressor, and stressors can be social, physical, environmental, emotional, or psychological: 

  • Overexercising 
  • Undereating/Dieting 
  • Environmental toxins/mold 
  • A breakup or divorce 
  • Work demands and burnout 
  • Experiencing weight bias or racism 

Five Common Root Causes of Stress-Related Weight Changes 

1. Cortisol 

Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is a steroid made and released by the adrenal glands when our “fight or flight” nervous system is triggered, causing an increase in blood sugar, heart rate, and even vision. Short-term, these changes fuel our bodies to fight but suppress “non-essential” body functions like digestion, reproduction, and even immunity, sometimes causing weight loss secondary to poor appetite, changes in food digestion, absorption, and metabolism, and even constipation or diarrhea. Chronic stress, however, can lead to midline weight gain as our bellies have four times more cortisol receptors than any other cells in our bodies, and they are easy to access. To keep blood sugars elevated during stress, cortisol reduces fat and muscle cell sensitivity to sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance if chronically elevated. 

2. Insulin Resistance 

While insulin resistance is not fully understood, chronic stress (and cortisol) can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation, which can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance simply means that when insulin shows up to unlock cells to allow glucose inside, the cells don’t respond, leaving glucose in the bloodstream and triggering more insulin release to override the cell’s resistance. Higher levels of insulin in the body can cause weight gain as it is an anabolic (building) hormone for muscle and fat. 

3. Inflammation 

A buzzword, for sure, inflammation triggers the immune system to respond to injury, harmful stimuli, or other forms of stress to promote healing and health. Not all inflammation is bad! The soreness you experience after a workout is due to damaged muscle fibers being tended to by inflammation – leading to new muscle! In contrast, chronic stress (undereating, lack of sleep, overexercise, emotional, autoimmune) can lead to chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation can lead to weight gain. 

4. Neuropeptide Y 

If you’ve ever experienced sugar cravings in the middle of a diet, you’ve experienced the power of Neuropeptide-Y. In times of dietary restriction, our bodies experience enough stress to trigger powerful carbohydrate cravings, which can lead to binges secondary to perceived food scarcity, increased carbohydrate cravings, or even primal hunger (read: as hungry as a wolf!) – all able to cause weight fluctuations. 

5. Prolactin 

Prolactin is considered an “adaptive hormone” because of its key roles in regulating reproduction, metabolism, and stress adaptation (to name a few), which is why changes in prolactin levels can impact fertility, menstruation, weight, and mood (depression/anxiety). What’s more, prolactin works to inhibit the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA-axis) reactivity, meaning it helps to buffer the impact of stress! While prolactin helps to reduce the impact of stress on our bodies, it increases insulin resistance, contributing to weight gain. here to guide you. 

Five Things You Can Do to Address Stress 

Stress-related weight changes can be complicated and — let’s face it — scary, unnerving, and uncomfortable; however, when we better understand the “why” behind them, it helps us to be gentler with ourselves and our bodies and consider the “what next” in terms of how to take better care of ourselves: 

1. Routine Check-up 

Have your primary care physician check labs for inflammation, stress, insulin resistance, and thyroid. 

A HOMA-IR test is best and can detect insulin resistance even when A1C and glucose labs are normal. 

2. Nutrition Make-Over 

Dieting can create and exacerbate our body’s stress! Diet culture programs our brains to view under-eating as the norm, and we often need to eat more than we think! Consider having a non-diet Registered Dietitian assess whether you eat enough throughout the day, especially carbohydrates. 

Replacing caffeine and alcohol (raises cortisol) with herbal teas like lemon balm and chamomile, incorporating more Mediterranean foods, and taking an Omega-3 with DHA can help address several root causes of stress. 

Talk to your doctor or Registered Dietitian about supplements you could try as early interventions for improving insulin sensitivity. 

3. Get Intentional with Movement 

If you’ve been overdoing exercise, replacing HIIT with yoga, walking, or weightlifting can provide movement that doesn’t spike cortisol, inflammation, or prolactin. 

Lying on the floor with your legs up the wall can help turn the fight or flight response off! 

4. Reboot Relationships 

Being in the community lowers stress. 

Oxytocin, the love hormone, lowers cortisol and increases with hugs, snuggles, and sex. 

5. Self-Care is Health Care 

Work toward getting enough to eat, drink, and at least eight hours of sleep. 

Re-evaluate personal AND professional boundaries and limits. 

Carve out time to decompress (Walking in nature really helps!). 

Try a daily meditation or quiet self-care practice. 

Trauma changes how our HPA-axis fires, causing it to fire more often to less intense stimuli because of the brain’s heavy foot on the “fight or flight” gas pedal. Seeking therapy for trauma can help the nervous system get regulated and reduce the intensity of the brain’s response to perceived stress and danger. 

It can be equally difficult to experience natural, healthy weight change and not assume something is “wrong.” In a culture that screams “THIN IS HEALTHY,” even normal and healthy weight gain can feel stressful, but not all weight changes are a sign of something brewing in the body. Many weight changes occur with aging or beginning to experience food freedom after years of restriction. When healing stress in our lives that involves food restriction and overexercise, with gastric symptoms like poor appetite, digestion, and diarrhea, we can experience healthy and life-giving weight restoration. 

While it’s possible to take steps to lower stress and improve health alone, fighting the urge to cut out foods, overexercise, and diet can be challenging! For non-diet support and individualized nutrition care that addresses the roots of stress in your life, reach out to Memphis Nutrition Group! 

Martha Lee Anne Laret, MS, RDN, LDN is a Nutrition Therapist at Memphis Nutrition Group, a nutrition and lifestyle counseling practice offering in-person and virtual nutrition therapy specializing in a non-diet, weight-neutral approach. Contact Memphis Nutrition Group at 901.343.6146 or visit for more information.