Food—we all like to call it the ultimate solution to our stressed mind. “Had a bad day? Let’s grab something to eat, had your heart broken? A tub of ice cream would lessen the pain.” These are just some of the phases we all go through at some point in our life. Sure eating mindlessly would make you feel better at that time, but if this continues, it might lead to some serious health problems. One among those serious health issues is the weight gain. So, does stress really lead to weight gain? Let’s find out.
Eating more calories than burning off in energy is what leads to weight gain. Talking about the relationship between stress and weight gain, chronic stress or in simple words, long-term stress disrupts our sleep and our blood sugar levels. This leads to increased hunger and comfort eating. All of this gets worse leading to further disrupted sleep and even higher level of stress and more disrupted blood sugars. This can not only lead to weight gain but also to type-2 diabetes.
Dr. Giles Yeo, a member of the Trust Me, I’m a Doctor team decided to initiate the study on what can happen with the help of scientists from Leeds University to put himself through a particularly stressful day.
The Leeds scientists initiated the study by asking Giles to do something called the Maastricht Stress Test. The team put Giles in front of a computer and made him rapidly subtract a number, 17, from another number 2,043. He kept making mistakes, which put Giles into a stressful situation.
Then, the team got him to put his hand in a bath of ice-cold water and hold it there. They measured Giles’ blood sugar level before and after the experiment.
Our blood sugar level rise when we eat and, in a healthy person like Giles, they quickly return to normal.
However, on the day of the experiment, team Leeds found out that when Giles was stressed, his blood sugar levels took three long hours to return back to normal—some six times longer than on a normal (stress-free) day.
The main reason behind this is – when we are stressed, our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Our body thinks it is under some attack and releases glucose into your blood to provide more energy for your muscles. But, if you do not need that energy to run away from danger, then your pancreas will pump out insulin to bring those blood sugar levels back down again.
And these rising levels of insulin and falling blood sugars result in massive hunger. This is the main reason why we crave sugary carbs when we are stressed. The same thing is also the reason for our massive hunger when we have a bad night’s sleep.
A few researchers at King’s College, London carried out a study that found out that sleep-deprived people are likely to consume an extra 385kcal per day on average, which is a lot of calories to consume for a normal person. This is why children are also likely to eat something sugary when they don’t have enough sleep.
Another recent study on the same topic was done where researchers took a small group of three to four-year-olds who were all regular afternoon nappers and not only deprived them of their afternoon nap but also kept them up for about two hours past their normal bedtime. On the following day, the children ate 20 percent more calories than they consume on a normal day. They were then allowed to sleep as much as they wanted. Even on the day after that, the children still consumed 14 percent more calories than normal.
All of the above studies conclude on the fact that stress actually does lead us to weight gain. You can read our previous articles to know about the causes of stress and how you can avoid them.