Can Stress Cause Weight Loss? Causes & How to Manage It

Learn how stress affects weight loss by impacting metabolism, appetite, and behavior. Discover strategies for better weight control and well-being.

A woman measuring her waist
Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Updated by

Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Science-based and reviewed

May 20, 2024
May 15, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Stress is a natural response to challenging situations, but its effects on the body can be far-reaching, potentially impacting weight. In some cases, stress can lead to weight loss, a phenomenon that can be concerning for many individuals. Understanding the relationship between stress and weight loss is crucial for maintaining overall health. This article explores the causes of stress-induced weight loss and offers practical tips on how to manage stress to support a healthy weight.

The Link Between Stress and Weight Loss

A woman stressed while working

The relationship between stress and weight loss is complex, involving various physiological and psychological factors. When you experience stress, your body undergoes a series of responses, including releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can affect your metabolism, appetite, and overall energy balance. These changes and potential alterations in behavior and sleep patterns can lead to weight loss over time. Additionally, stress can contribute to gastrointestinal issues and inflammation, further impacting your body's ability to regulate weight. 

  • The Body’s Fight-Or-Flight Response Activates: When you're stressed, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol as part of the fight-or-flight response. This can suppress your appetite in the short term, leading to weight loss.
  • Stress Can Change Your Metabolism: Chronic stress can alter your metabolism, affecting how your body processes food and stores fat. This can lead to weight loss, especially if coupled with decreased appetite or increased energy expenditure.
  • Gastrointestinal Distress: Stress can cause gastrointestinal issues like nausea, diarrhea, or stomach pain, which can lead to a decrease in food intake and subsequent weight loss.
  • Inflammation/Activation of the Vagal Nerve: Stress can trigger inflammation and activate the vagal nerve, disrupting normal digestion and leading to changes in appetite and weight.
  • The HPA Axis Is Altered: Chronic stress can alter the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the body's response to stress. This can lead to hormonal imbalances that affect appetite and metabolism, potentially resulting in weight loss.
  • Disruptions in Your Sleep Can Affect Your Cortisol Level Production: Stress can disrupt your sleep, leading to changes in stress hormone production. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a role in metabolism and appetite regulation, so changes in its levels can contribute to weight loss.
  • Your Nervous Movements May Burn Calories: When stressed, some people engage in nervous movements, like pacing or fidgeting. While these movements may burn some extra calories, they are unlikely to significantly contribute to weight loss on their own.

Weight Loss From Stress: When Should You See a Doctor?

While some weight loss during stressful periods is common, significant or unexplained weight loss can be a cause for concern and may indicate an underlying health issue. It's important to pay attention to your body's signals and seek medical advice if you experience any unusual or concerning signs of weight loss. This section highlights some key signs that may indicate the need to see a doctor when experiencing weight loss due to stress.

  • Frequent Vomiting: Persistent vomiting, especially without an apparent cause, such as stomach flu or food poisoning, could indicate a more serious issue that requires medical attention.
  • Changes in Bowel Habits: Significant changes in bowel habits, such as persistent diarrhea or constipation, maybe a sign of an underlying health condition that needs to be addressed by a healthcare professional.
  • Fatigue: While fatigue can be a symptom of stress, excessive or persistent fatigue, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, may warrant a visit to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
  • Chest Pain: Chest pain can be a sign of various health issues, including heart problems. If you experience chest pain, especially if it is severe or persistent, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Chronic Headaches: While stress can contribute to headaches, persistent or severe headaches may indicate another underlying issue that requires medical evaluation.
  • Losing More Than 5% of Your Body Weight Over 6 to 12 Months: Significant and unexplained weight loss can be a red flag for various health conditions, including thyroid issues, diabetes, or cancer, and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.
  • Lack of Appetite: While stress can affect appetite, a persistent lack of appetite that leads to significant weight loss may indicate an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed.

How to Avoid Stress-Related Weight Loss

Avoiding stress-related weight loss involves both managing stress levels and maintaining healthy habits to support your body's overall well-being. Stress management techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress and its impact on your body. Additionally, ensuring you have a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods can support your body during times of stress. 

Regular physical activity can also help manage stress and maintain muscle mass. Prioritizing sleep and seeking social support are other important strategies to help prevent stress-related weight loss. Incorporating these practices into your routine can better manage stress and support your overall health and weight.

  • Eating Smaller Meals: Instead of skipping meals or eating irregularly, try eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day to maintain a steady intake of nutrients and prevent excessive weight loss.
  • Choose Foods That Improve Your Mood: Change up your eating habits to include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds, which may help improve mood and reduce stress levels.
  • Avoid Meals That Can Spike Your Blood Sugar Levels: Limit comfort foods high in refined sugars and carbohydrates. These can cause rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, leading to increased stress and potential weight loss.
  • Introduce Post-workout Snacks to Your Routine: After exercising, have a balanced snack that includes protein and carbohydrates to replenish energy stores and prevent muscle breakdown, which can contribute to weight loss.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href=can-stress-make-you-sick>How Can Stress Make You Sick? Body and Mind-Related Effects</a>.</p>

Can You Gain Weight Due to Stress?

Stress can lead to weight gain, primarily due to its impact on hormones and behaviors. When stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that can increase appetite and drive cravings for unhealthy, high-calorie foods. This can lead to overeating and weight gain, especially if stress is chronic and not effectively managed.

Additionally, poor mental health can affect behaviors that contribute to weight gain, such as emotional eating, decreased physical activity, and disrupted sleep patterns. When stressed, people may turn to food for comfort or as a coping mechanism, consuming more calories than they need. Stress can also disrupt sleep, affecting hunger hormones and increasing appetite and weight gain over time. Therefore, managing stress effectively is important for maintaining a healthy weight.

8 Ways to Reduce Stress

A woman meditating

In today's fast-paced world, stress has become a common part of daily life. However, finding ways to manage and reduce stress is important to maintain our overall mental health. Fortunately, many simple and effective strategies can help us cope with stress and its effects. From practicing mindfulness and meditation to engaging in regular physical activity and getting enough sleep, these techniques can help us unwind, relax, and restore balance. In this section, we'll explore eight effective ways to reduce stress and improve our quality of life.

  • Listening to Music: Calming music can help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation.
  • Meditating: Practicing meditation can help calm the mind and reduce stress.
  • Practicing Mindfulness: Mindfulness focuses on the present moment and can help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Working Out: Regular physical activity can help reduce stress and improve mood.
  • Reading a Book: Reading can be a relaxing way to unwind and distract yourself from stressors.
  • Sleeping More: Getting enough sleep is important for managing stress. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night.
  • Limiting or Avoiding Alcohol Intake: Alcohol can increase feelings of stress and anxiety, so limiting or avoiding alcohol can help reduce stress levels.
  • Spending Time in Nature: Being in nature can have a calming effect on the mind and body, helping to reduce stress levels.

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

Choosing the proper medication is crucial for improving health, managing diabetes, and controlling weight loss. Medications play a vital role in managing chronic conditions like diabetes by helping to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of complications. However, selecting the right medication requires careful consideration of factors such as the individual's overall health, medical history, and specific needs. This is where Signos' experts can provide invaluable guidance. With their expertise, they can assess an individual's health status, understand their unique requirements, and recommend the most suitable medications to achieve optimal health outcomes. Their advice can help ensure that medications are used effectively and safely, maximizing their benefits in improving health, managing diabetes, and controlling weight loss.

Signos offers a comprehensive approach to improving health by providing expert guidance on medication selection and management. Their team of experts can help individuals understand their glucose levels better through informative articles on their blog, offering valuable insights into managing diabetes and improving overall health. Additionally, Signos provides a quick quiz to help individuals determine if their services are a good fit for their needs, ensuring that they receive personalized care tailored to their unique health goals. With Signos, individuals can access the resources and support they need to make informed decisions about their health and achieve better outcomes.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href=stress-supplements>Supplements for Stress Relief, According to Dietitians</a>.</p>

Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • item 3
Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Topics discussed in this article:


About the author

Kristen Carli is the owner of Camelback Nutrition & Wellness. She graduated from University of Arizona with a BA in psychology and then received a BS in dietetics from Arizona State University.

View Author Bio

Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

Interested in learning more about metabolic health and weight management?

Try Signos.