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Everyone reacts differently to stress, and it can have a major impact on your body. For example, you might ramp up your exercise routine, while others might reach for their favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s. If you’ve been feeling extra stressed recently and noticed your jeans are getting looser, stress weight loss could be to blame.
How does stress cause weight loss?
Stress can affect your weight in a few key ways — both physically and psychologically. Figuring out what’s causing the weight loss will help you pick the best solution.
Forgetting to eat
“Stress causes many physiological responses and oftentimes affects how people eat,” says certified nutritionist Serena Poon. “Some people tend to overeat or ‘comfort eat’ when stressed, and others tend to reduce their food intake, which may lead to weight loss.”
Even if you’ve never forgotten a meal in your life, stress can throw off your mealtime habits. Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is your innate “fight or flight” response.
“This might make some people become hyper-focused on what is causing them stress, as they would be if they were escaping some sort of danger,” says Poon. “With all of their focus turned to the source of stress, some people simply forget to eat.”
Research suggests that about 40 percent of people eat less when they’re stressed, but your response will depend on your body, the level of stress you’re feeling, and other circumstances. Even your body mass index could affect the way your body reacts.
Your gut is often called your second brain, and when you’re stressed, both organs are doing their best to cope.
“There is a proven connection between your digestive microbiome and your brain,” says Poon. “When your brain is experiencing stress, it may show up in your digestive system as indigestion, nausea, and even vomiting.”
These symptoms can make food less appetizing or make it difficult to eat the same size portions you normally would.
Turning to physical activity is a healthy way to manage stress when it’s done safely. It not only serves as a mental distraction but also spurs the release of endorphins that elevate your mood.
Ramping up your exercise intensity and duration without also increasing your caloric intake can lead to weight loss. But it’s dangerous to exert yourself too much without giving your body the nutrients it needs.
While stress weight loss can resolve itself (especially once you resolve the stressor), it still may be an alarming side effect, and losing unintended weight may even add to your stress. There are a few things you can do to stop weight loss due to stress.
It may seem obvious, but just making sure you’re getting enough calories is a good place to start.
“Setting aside even 10 minutes to sit down for your meals and really focus in on how your food is nourishing your body and mind can make a world of difference,” says Poon. “Eating is essential, and eating nourishing food with presence is even more important when you are experiencing stress. Nourishing foods can protect against some of the other symptoms of stress, such as illness or disease.”
Find support at mealtime
If you’re having a hard time remembering to eat, it might be a good idea to book a lunch date (digital dates work too). Sitting down with a loved one, colleague, or friend, even for just a few minutes, might be enough to hold you accountable to getting all the nutrient goodness you need.
Talk to a mental healthcare provider
If you’re experiencing stress so intensely that it’s causing you to be unwell, it may be time to chat with a therapist. There are many treatment methods available to support your mental health, so try a few different philosophies and practitioners to find what works best for you.
Meditation and breath work can do wonders for stress management.
“Meditation allows you to become aware of what is happening in your mind and body,” says Poon. “It often gives people the tools to be able to detach or lessen negative physiological responses from their experience of stress.”
If you don’t know where to start, download an app like Calm, which offers short, guided meditations.
Move your body
For many people, movement goes out the window during times of stress — sometimes curling up on the couch or in bed feels more comforting. But light movement, like walking around the block or a gentle yoga sesh, may help you work up an appetite.
If you already know you’re the type of person who experiences stress weight loss, use a time of calm and peace to take preventive measures. There are a few things you can do now to stave off future weight loss due to stress.
Learn how to manage stress
While stress can actually be beneficial in some cases, Poon says extreme stress is usually just bad for your health. One of the best ways to avoid extreme symptoms of stress is to learn to manage your stress through meditation, breath work, and exercise.
Once you have a regular practice in place, it’ll be much easier to draw upon it when you need it. Learning how to meditate or do breathing exercises while you’re stressed out may be asking too much of yourself.
Recognize your triggers and responses
When it comes to stress, knowing yourself is half the battle. Understanding what causes you stress and how you normally react to it can help you prevent serious scenarios.
“Try keeping a stress diary that details how your body and mind tend to react when you are experiencing stress,” suggests Poon. “With this knowledge, you can begin to nip some of the symptoms if you notice them beginning to arise.”
Have a support system in place
If you regularly find yourself forgetting to eat and losing a concerning amount of weight when you’re stressed, work on building a support team of friends and professionals you can turn to when you see yourself slipping into these patterns.
You can also check out mental health resources like these for support:
- Mindshift is an app that includes guided meditations and a journaling feature to track your emotions.
- SAM is an app built to help you manage your stress and even offers an option to share your experiences with the app’s community confidentially.
- If you need to talk to someone, you can reach out to a crisis hotline. Can’t call? You can text HELLO to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
When to see the doc
Sometimes, stress weight loss resolves itself. “If you are experiencing stress-related weight loss but are still eating nourishing meals, [you] understand what is causing you to experience stress, and [you] see an end to your stressors in sight, you might not need to worry about it too much,” says Poon.
On the flip side, if you’re not sure why you’re losing weight, you aren’t eating enough or drinking enough water, or you’re experiencing extreme stress, possibly due to something like a loss or trauma, she says it might be a good idea to seek professional help.
“It wouldn’t hurt to chat with your doctor or mental health practitioner,” says Poon. “I would say that it becomes essential to visit your doctor or practitioner if your stress-related weight loss is out of the ordinary for you, if you have stopped eating nourishing meals, or if your stress feels overwhelming.”
Stress-related weight loss is common, whether it’s due to missed meals, digestive issues, or using intense physical activity as a coping mechanism.
By learning to manage stress through meditation, building a support system, and making sure you’re eating nourishing meals regularly, you can keep stress weight loss at bay.