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Stress and Weight Loss: How Emotional Health Impacts Your Progress

By Alex Bakhovsky
September 6, 2023
7 minutes
Stress and Weight Loss

Are you having trouble achieving your weight-loss goals despite making healthy eating and exercise choices? Is stress holding you back from reaching your desired results? If yes, you’re not alone. Stress – emotional and physical – plays a huge role in how successful we are when it comes to losing weight. 

Increased levels of stress hormones can increase appetite, while reduced mood distress can make it harder to stick with healthier habits. These findings demonstrate the strong connection between emotional well-being and physical progress. 

It’s easy to relate this concept on a personal level once we understand the science behind it. For example, have you ever noticed that when going through an emotionally tough time, such as a breakup or job loss, unhealthy foods seem to be more appealing than usual? 

That is due to cortisol levels spiking our appetites and cravings for sugary items spiking as well!  Anecdotally speaking, most of us can recall how difficult it was (and still is!) to maintain the same dedication towards healthy eating and exercise during periods of high stress. 

We shouldn’t be surprised then by the fact that more than half of adults are now considered overweight or obese. Most of them report feeling some form of chronic stress in their everyday lives. This combination remedies an unhealthy cycle: one state exacerbates the effects of the other until proper intervention is sought out and new habits are formed.  

Table of Contents:

Part 1:The Physiology of Stress 

The Physiology of Stress

The first step towards better understanding the relationship between stress and weight loss is to define what exactly we mean when we talk about this emotion. 

Psychologist Richard Lazarus defined it as “a behavioral-physiological state of disharmony, with or without conscious awareness, resulting from a discrepancy between demands and resources or abilities to meet those demands.” 

In short, it is an imbalance inside us — both mental and physical — rooted in our individual experiences and environmental influences that leave us feeling helpless or overwhelmed.

When our bodies detect a threat (real or perceived) they launch a cascade of responses aimed at protecting us at that moment – fight, flight, and freeze are just a few common evolutionary reactions that manifest themselves through various channels. 

One of these is the release of cortisol, otherwise known as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol is released into the bloodstream during times of anxiety to influence 

  • Sugar metabolism (raising blood sugar levels)
  • reduce inflammation in response to injury/illness (suppress immune system response)
  • store fat around major organs and tissues for energy production later on (increase chances for obesity)
  • increasing blood pressure (heart disease risk)
  • all while heightening alertness, making decisions, reasoning, learning, and more! 

Part 2:The Stress Response System: An Evolutionary Perspective 

The Stress Response System An Evolutionary Perspective

In addition to cortisol secretion, other hormones such as adrenaline are also released at different stages of the so-called “fight-or-flight” response. It should be noted these processes were essential for our early human ancestors who lived in dangerous environments where quick decisions and drastic action were needed to survive. 

While most modern-day threats don’t necessarily require superhuman agility anymore – having lost its sharpened relevance years ago – this same chain reaction inside our bodies persists today with elevated risk levels. 

As long as there are real or perceived danger points present in any given situation (often highly subjective depending on who you ask!), then cortisol secretion remains active even if those threats could be considered minor within reason subconsciously playing out their role against them regardless – often resulting in chronic stress.  

Part 3:The Emotional Roller-Coaster of Stress 

The Emotional Roller-Coaster of Stress

The increase in cortisol levels that comes with stress affects not only our physical health but our mental and emotional state as well. 

Have you ever heard people use the term “emotional rollercoaster” to talk about their emotions during high-stress periods? This is very apt! When trying to manage stressful episodes, it’s common to see regular fluctuations in mood. 

Mood swings often come with different behaviors such as

  • bursts of energy (or sometimes complete lack thereof)
  • increased irritability 
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • a need for isolation from friends or family members
  • sudden extreme sadness, fear, or frustration outbursts, and so on. 

On the other end of the spectrum, low cortisol levels can also give birth to a degree of depression – something that has been linked directly to weight gain. People who suffer symptoms of depression have inconstant self-care routines that often trickle down into unhealthy eating habits leading them towards more fat tissue accumulation over time notwithstanding any underlying metabolic issues taking place concurrently. 

It’s quite literally an emotional rollercoaster! And if you are lucky enough to recognize it early on: you can dismount this carousel relatively quickly and start heading towards meaningful progress once again by yourself or with the aid of a specialist! 

Part 4:Emotional Eating: Stress and Comfort Foods 

Emotional Eating Stress and Comfort Foods

Another important factor to take into consideration when dealing with stress-related weight gain is emotional eating patterns. This term applies when you turn to food for consolation so you can cope with feeling down or stressed out. 

When it comes to looking for comfort food, people usually don’t reach for carrot sticks or apples! Common choices often include high-calorie desserts, fried/processed carbohydrates, candies, cookies, and other items filled with sugar – essentially things that give us an immediate sense of pleasure while our serotonin levels increase.  For many of us these activities become a form of coping strategy (sort of like self-medicating) during times of hardship as we seek something pleasurable – or at worst just “bearable” – to “numb out” from those same painful emotions previously mentioned. 

Simply put comfort foods (usually those loaded with added sugars) come in handy when there is nothing else to help ease these punishing sensations one may be going through internally. Unfortunately consuming too much fat and sugar can lead to numerous health issues such as diabetes and heart conditions not to mention a decreased quality-of-life overall! 

As responsible adults, it becomes vital for us not only to manage our stress levels but also to use nutrition and lifestyle tactics so that unhealthy habits do not become an integral part of our lives going forward.  

Part 5:Sleep Disruption: Another Key Component in the Stress & Weight Loss Cycle 

Another Key Component in the Stress & Weight Loss Cycle

On top of the physiological and emotional repercussions stress has on our systems, it’s also important to recognize how it affects our sleep quality – which can further exacerbate weight-loss resistance. 

Starting with cortisol secretion once again, its presence during anxious states keeps us alert for extended hours whether we’re wakeful or dozing off, causing an interruption to normal circadian rhythms sometimes known as “hyperarousal disorder”. At its worst, this can even lead to short bouts of insomnia – depending on the severity of one’s experience – leaving them feeling tired and sluggish throughout their days. 

Poor sleep leads to increased cravings (especially for carbohydrates) due to regular increases in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) along with decreases in leptin production (telling us when we have had enough). Managing our ability to rest is crucial for energy balance and conserving physical resources so future weight-management goals may be met accordingly.  

Part 6:Practical Tips and Recommendations 

Practical Tips and Recommendations

Now that we understand the strong connection between emotional health and successful weight loss, let’s discuss ways one can take a proactive approach to controlling the body’s response to stress: 

  • Take breaks throughout the day
  • Identify high-stress points and prepare for them ahead of time
  • practice mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation regularly
  • Schedule stretches or other calming activities into one’s daily routine

These are all great ways to help manage thoughts that are causing distress in addition to staying active and following good sleep hygiene practices. 

It should be noted that managing physical factors such as breathing rate through specific exercises can also provide relief from feelings of frustration which exercise has been linked directly with lower elevated cortisol levels!  

Part 7:Dietary adjustments to counteract the effects of stress. 

Dietary adjustments to counteract the effects of stress

  • eat whole foods versus highly refined ones
  • Avoid sugary drinks (including soda)
  • and drink plenty of water each day

These things will ensure a person feels properly nourished both physically and emotionally as well. 

Ensure regular physical activity is included in your routine — It doesn’t need to be anything strenuous or difficult– just something that gets you up off the couch periodically so your body can begin releasing endorphins giving you back needed energy while reducing cortisol production during stressful periods!  

Part 8:Importance of regular physical activity and its role in stress management. 

Importance of regular physical activity and its role in stress management

Exercise is an important part of any healthy lifestyle – not only do our endorphin levels soar afterward but it helps us burn calories more efficiently – making it easier to maintain our desired progress along this journey! 

Exercises done during emotional episodes offer a natural way for individuals to find strength within themselves without necessarily resorting to comfort food binges, sedentary habits, or other methods used, usually trying to recoup from previous experiences instead of proving there’s still hope even though life might feel overwhelming at times! Not only does this help improve overall mental clarity but strengthens resilience when internal pressures become ever too strong.

We must remember the journey is neither linear nor perfect but full potential will be unleashed when we commit ourselves to achieving goals to the best of our abilities particularly those emotionally taxing moments where things seem the hardest yet most rewarding times as well! 

Key Takeaways

It’s easy to see just how greatly stress can impact our progress in reaching health-related goals such as weight management. Stress hormones such as cortisol are released during tough emotional episodes and can increase appetite while simultaneously impairing the ability to stick with healthy habits. 

Not managing stress levels properly can lead to an array of health problems from obesity to heart disease. 

Lifestyle modifications such as increasing physical activity, mindful practices like meditation, and proper nutrition – can help better cope with these powerful emotions while allowing them to make meaningful progress within their weight-loss journeys overall! 

It is important to engage in this process to understand that emotional health plays an integral part in this equation. By managing stress and taking a holistic approach towards weight management, the chances of success improve greatly and ultimately enhance the quality of life both emotionally and physically!

Alex Bakhovsky
Greetings, I am Alex Bakhovsky, a fervent health and fitness enthusiast with a profound ardor for enhancing the overall well-being of both ordinary individuals and elite athletes. My ultimate goal is to disseminate this passion and knowledge to a wider audience, including yourself. With over five years of experience as a certified personal trainer and nutritionist, I have acquired a wealth of practical knowledge and skills that enable me to provide comprehensive guidance and support to my clients in achieving their fitness and wellness goals.
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