Stress as a Reason for Weight Loss

Many reasons make us stressed, but can it lead to weight loss. Read about that in the article.
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Nowadays, life is full of stress factors. This cannot pass by… 

Stress affects our overall health–physical and psychological state. Let’s see how stress can cause weight loss and why having a stressful life is not the best way to lose weight.

Written by
Vera Bokor
Health and Wellbeing Coach

We all experience stress at some point in our life. And you have to agree that it is not pleasant, we experience a range of negative feelings and sometimes health complications. Some of us are so stressed that they start losing weight even when eating normally

What is stress?

Before we answer the question, let’s talk about what stress is.

Stress is a reaction to physical or psychological stimuli. A stress response appears as emotional changes from hysterical laugh to heavy tears or anxiety and physical reaction as tremor, temperature rise or drop and so on. 

Stress heavily affects our mood and daily life in general, in some cases it can even lead to depression. 

What is the “fight-or-flight” response?

Two fighting springboks.

Evolutionarily, our bodies have got a reaction to a stressful situation by activating the sympathetic nervous system which stimulates “fight-or-flight” response. 

This was needed for our ancestors to save their lives by fighting a danger such as a wild animal or running from it. 

Modern life doesn’t require us to fight or run, because nowadays dangers are represented mostly by chronic psychological nonphysical factors, but we still have the “fight-or-flight” response, which activates a hormonal cascade where cortisol plays the main role (1).

A few words about cortisol

Cortisol is a so-called “stress hormone” is a steroid hormone, which is produced by adrenal glands which are paused on top of your kidneys.  

It has a few “good” functions in our body:

  • It helps you wake up in the morning by activating the sympathetic nervous system
  • It stimulates glucose production from non-carbohydrate sources for being able to make physical actions to accomplish “fight or flight” response
  • It reduces inflammation

And a few “bad” ones:

  • It reduces bone formation
  • It inhibits collagen and protein synthesis
  • It weakens immune system
  • It causes sleep deprivation
  • It leads to heart problems (2).
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How does stress cause weight loss?

Woman with a measuring tape around her waist.

Because our bodies think that we need energy to take quick physical actions, proteins are broken down to supply this energy. It is much faster for the body to use muscle tissue as fuel supply, than producing energy from fat sources. Cortisol is anabolic to fat (keeps it) and catabolic to muscle (burns it). This is the first step.

The second step is decreased synthesis of proteins and bone formation. You have less muscle mass and weak bones, which affects the number on the scale.

What you see in the end is weight loss, but it’s due to muscle loss and reduced bone density.(3).

What is the difference between physiological and psychological stress?

When danger used to be physical, cortisol levels would lower to its normal levels quickly after the danger passed. So it would do its job and wouldn’t harm humans health.

Nowadays stress stimuli are mostly psychological, chronic and constant such as work, studying, children, relationship, social problems. That leads to chronic high levels of cortisol.

We are well adapted to a short-term increase in cortisol, but in the long-term it causes a variety of health problems (4).

How bad sleep affects us 

Sleep deprivation has become a chronic stressor today. Lack of sleep or bad quality sleep keeps our cortisol levels high and the worst part is that they don’t drop rapidly. It takes a few days to stabilise cortisol levels even if you have good rest and manage your stress (5). 

To improve your sleep, have bad hygiene in order to exclude this stress factor from your life. Go to bed early, don’t look at any screen at least an hour before, don’t eat late in the night.

Stress management tips

There are some actions which you can take to reduce your stress:

  • Sleep from six to eight hours a day
  • Have some sport activities
  • Do some yin yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Practice breathing exercises
  • Take a bath with sea salt
  • Use some lavender oil on your pillow or in a humidifier
  • Have a walk before going to bed
  • Take 200 mg of magnesium in the evening
  • Slowly count till ten when you are too stressed, angry, or anxious
  • Don’t use any device with a screen at least an hour before bad

The bottom line

Yes, stress does cause weight loss. You can eat whatever you want and still lose weight due to high cortisol levels, but this results in the loss of muscle and bone mass, which can be a reason for a number of health complications in the future. That is why stress management has become an important part of our daily life. And for losing weight it is better to apply different, safer methods. Read our article about intermittent fasting, which is one of such methods (6). 


  3. Braun T. P., Marks D. L. The regulation of muscle mass by endogenous glucocorticoids. Front Physiol. 2015; 6: 12. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2015.00012
  4. Fung J. M.D. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. 2015.
  5. Leproult R  Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep. 1997 Oct;20(10):865-70.

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