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In today’s fast-paced world, the emphasis is on efficiency, being competitive, and striving for perfection, which ratchet up our stress levels. It’s as if stress greets us at every turn, no matter where we look. Adding a bit more to that thought, we’re on a treadmill of high expectations that never slows down, constantly feeding into our anxieties.

Stress can significantly impact various bodily functions, often manifesting as shifts in one’s dietary patterns. You might find yourself eating too much or suddenly losing your appetite. To elaborate, this upheaval in eating habits could be a ripple effect of the body’s stress response, altering not just your mental state but your physical well-being.

What is Stress?

Stress is a mental or physical strain triggered by anything that irritates, angers, or worries you. Although sometimes stress is a motivator, helping you buckle down to meet a deadline or excel at a task, it can positively and negatively influence your lifestyle choices and biological functions. Stress contributes to headaches, poor nutrition, and sleep disruptions for many, but it can also lead to more severe outcomes like unexplained weight fluctuations. 

Types of Stress

There are four types of stresses. Not all are bad:

  1. Acute Stress: This short-lived stress can be either uplifting or troublesome, and it’s the kind we bump into regularly in our daily lives. A person afraid of dogs has to walk past a barking Doberman. His heart races and his palms are sweaty, but the stress dissipates once he is safely past the dog.

  2. Chronic Stress:  This form of stress feels relentless and inescapable, often rooted in significant life challenges like a difficult marriage, a draining job, or even past traumas and experiences from childhood.

  3. Episodic Acute Stress: This is when acute stress seems on a never-ending loop, turning life into a constant state of agitation. Imagine someone who’s perpetually running late. They’re sprinting to catch one train, then they’re stressing about a meeting, and later, they’re panicking about deadlines. It’s like they’re on a stress treadmill.

  4. Eustress: This stress leaves you feeling invigorated and pumped up. It usually accompanies adrenaline rushes, like when you’re downhill skiing or hustling to meet a tight deadline.

How do I know I am stressed? 

It often leads to mood swings, a sense of being overwhelmed, irritability, and anxiety. Physically, you might feel drained, like you’re running on fumes, and emotionally, like you’re at your wit’s end.

Recognising stress can be challenging. If you suspect that stress is getting to you, here’s what to look out for:

Psychologically: You might find it hard to focus, experience excessive worry, or struggle with memory lapses.

Emotionally: Feelings of anger, annoyance, moodiness, or frustration could be frequent visitors.

Physical indicators: Watch for elevated blood pressure, weight fluctuations, recurring illnesses, and shifts in your menstrual cycle or sex drive.

Behaviour-wise: Neglecting self-care, losing interest in activities you usually enjoy, or turning to substances like drugs or alcohol for relief can be red flags.


Cortisol is a crucial steroid hormone in the glucocorticoid family, churned out by your adrenal glands, which are perched right above your kidneys. It is often dubbed the “stress hormone” because it plays a crucial role in how your body reacts to stress. But it has a variety of other essential functions as well.

While it’s famous for being a big player in your body’s stress response, it wears many hats. Among its duties are elevating blood sugar, damping inflammation, suppressing the immune system, and aiding in nutrient metabolism.

This hormone is closely tied to your circadian rhythm. Most of it—around 50–60%—is released within 30–40 minutes after you wake up, with levels tapering off as the day continues. Your brain, specifically your pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, is the control tower for its production.

When stress levels rise, cortisol teams up with adrenaline to kick your heart rate and energy into high gear, priming your body to deal with potential threats. While this is a natural and often beneficial response, sustained high cortisol levels can have drawbacks.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels may promote overeating and weight gain, whereas low cortisol levels may lead to weight loss in some instances. It can lead to

  • Poor sleep.
  • Change in appetite.
  • Cravings for unhealthful foods.
  • Reduced motivation to engage in physical activity.

4 Harmful Ways Chronic Stress Can Mess With Your Weight

  • Activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response.

When stress kicks in, your sympathetic nervous system sends out the cavalry, mainly in the form of epinephrine, or what we commonly call adrenaline, from your adrenal glands. This hormone flips the switch on your fight-or-flight mode.

The adrenaline surge quickens your heartbeat and increases your breathing rate, which can torch some calories. It messes with your digestive process and raises your blood sugar levels. 

  • Alteration of the HPA axis.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the control centre for how your body handles stress, and it plays a significant role in regulating cortisol levels. When stress increases, the pituitary gland signals the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol. This hormone then acts like a fuel booster, freeing up fatty acids and glucose from the liver to give you the energy you need to handle whatever’s coming your way. It also keeps your immune response in check and tones down inflammation.

It gets tricky here: Chronic stress can wreck the HPA axis, messing with its functionality. This can lead to metabolism shifts and changes in eating habits, among other things.

  • Gastrointestinal distress.

Stress acts like a chatterbox between your brain and your gastrointestinal (GI) system, amplifying all GI symptoms. This isn’t just limited to one part; stress affects everything from your oesophagus to your stomach and bowel.

The list of GI symptoms stress can trigger is pretty extensive—example: 

  • Heartburn, 
  • Trouble swallowing, 
  • Gas, 
  • Bloating, 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Nausea, 
  • Vomiting, 
  • Appetite changes, 
  • Diarrhoea, 
  • Constipation, 
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Change in appetite.

Stress can be a disaster when it comes to your eating habits. When you’re stressed, clear thinking often goes out the window. You might start missing meals, eating less, or ignoring your hunger cues. Conversely, stress can turn you into a junk food magnet, triggering cravings that lead to weight gain. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation.

How to prevent and combat weight Fluctuations due to cortisol

  • Breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Meditating.
  • Exercising.
  • Listening to music or reading a book.
  • Practising time management techniques.
  • Getting adequate sleep.
  • Talking to family and friends.
  • Practising mindfulness.
  • Doing volunteer work and helping others.
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol.

These activities help us relax by increasing the production of Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, GABA, etc.

Nutrition for managing stress:

Nutrition is a cornerstone in managing stress. 

  • Omega-3s keep those stress hormones in check. (PMID: 36117650)
  • Vitamin C reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and reduces cortisol levels. (PMID: 32745879)
  • Complex carbs are your feel-good food, lifting serotonin and balancing out blood pressure. 
  • Magnesium for better sleep and less fatigue and headaches. (PMID: 32878232)

Also, make sure you are:

  • Eating regularly without skipping meals.
  • Avoiding high glycemic foods.
  • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Planning meals to avoid making poor food choices.
  • Eating a protein-rich snack.

Overall, it’s important to remember that there’s no miracle cure for Stress. Exercise, eating right, and relaxation are the best methods for managing stress.