Have you ever wondered why despite the right diet and exercise routine every day you can’t lose weight? Or why you get to a certain point with your results and then plateau or go backwards? Blame your brain, it is actually stress that is making you overweight.

The body doesn’t understand the difference between a real or perceived threat. So although someone may only be stressed about how they’re going to get everything done in their day, the body goes into fight or flight mode, which sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events in the body that piles on the pounds. Here are some ways that stress sends the body into chaos and how to fix it.

Metabolism and belly fat

When you’re stressed, the adrenal glands in the body are activated. This releases adrenaline, increasing the heart rate and blood flow, as well as cortisol, and floods the body with glucose for immediate energy (to enable you to fight or run away). Excess cortisol however, affects the thyroid and slows down the body’s metabolism to maintain the glucose supply. When it isn’t used, it is stored as fat. These elevated glucose levels also suppress insulin levels which decreases energy in the cells, causing the brain to send out unnecessary hunger signals.


When you don’t get a good night’s sleep, it disrupts the fat hormones. These hormones turn your appetite on and off, and tell the brain what to do with the fat (use for energy or store it). Lack of sleep will confuse the process and you will experience unnecessary hunger, not know when you are full and store fat when it should be burned. Furthermore, poor sleep impacts your ability to perform at your best and make good decisions, so on a day after little sleep you may choose to forgo exercise and choose poor meal options.

Digestion and kilojoules

When the body is trying to fight a threat, it slows or shuts down the digestive system because it is not considered integral to survival at that moment. Food is then not digested properly and a toxic build-up ensues, which retains fat and excess water resulting in you feeling puffy, sluggish and bloated. The kilojoules you consume need sufficient nutrients in order to build tissue or burn fat. Poor digestion affects the absorption of nutrients, so the kilojoules cause excess fat. The absence of nutrients also triggers an urge to eat and leaves you feeling consistently hungry and in “fat storage mode”, making weight loss very difficult.


Exercise is a stress on the body and causes cortisol to be released. In a normal functioning body, this is not a negative response and can be dealt with appropriately. However, if you’re in a constant state of stress then the levels of cortisol will already be too high in your body, so the stress response will be further triggered and likely contribute to weight gain or stubborn fat.

How to fix it

The best way to overcome “stress-induced fat” is to constantly communicate to your brain that you’re not in danger. Here are some easy ways you can do that:

  • Identify what’s important to you at your core and what fundamentally makes you happy. Schedule these things into your life regularly
  • Sleep 7–8 hours a night (it has been said time and time again but it is true)
  • Turn off technology 30–60 minutes before sleeping (the blue light it emits kills melatonin which is needed for sleep, plus it keeps the brain over-stimulated) and establish a relaxing sleep routine
  • Eat simple consistent meals made from whole, natural ingredients
  • Reduce the intensity of your exercise. Bring your current regime down a notch or try lower-impact options such as walking or swimming. Keep track of how you feel and adjust your program accordingly
  • Identify your stress triggers and create proactive strategies to change the way you respond to them
  • Get professional advice

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