Many of us may have gained weight when we’re under stress, and there’s an underlying science to why that happens. Understanding how your body reacts to a constant sense of urgency and what stress does to your waistline could be a first step in learning to manage it— and keeping yourself at a healthy weight. Why Stress Makes You Feel Hungry It’s one thing to feel a temporary “flight or fight” reaction when the brain perceives an emergency, but when stress goes on over a longer period, you can begin to feel demoralized and depressed. When that happens, your body responds with a cascade of hormonal changes. The adrenal glands above your kidneys ultimately release high levels of the steroid hormone, cortisol. And there’s a reason why you should care about that. Cortisol leads to feelings of hunger and cravings for fat, sugar and carbohydrates, and that’s where the extra pounds roll in. The hormone also tells your body to store fat. In people under pressure for extended periods of time, your cortisol levels are in overdrive. It’s not your imagination that feeling stressed out triggers what we often call emotional, or stress eating. Cravings and stress eating—and possibly weight gain—are a result of your body’s physical response to sustained duress. Cortisol and Weight Gain: A Particular Kind of Fat Stress weight gain is a double whammy: It’s more than extra pounds; it’s also the kind of fat cells your body produces. Cortisol leads to the creation of fat around your abdomen. Belly fat is associated with heart disease, contributes to the breakdown of healthy tissue, and lowers your immune response. High cortisol levels also correlate with high blood pressure and high blood sugar, both of which are risk factors for heart disease. Some people think stress can make you lose weight, and people do react differently to it. It may seem logical that agitation and an overactive mind could help burn calories. However, research shows many people who are under stress burn fewer calories after high-fat meals and produce more insulin, which also increases fat storage, than people who are not under stress. What You Can Do About Stress and Emotional Eating Controlling your stress level is the key to breaking the cortisol and stress eating cycle. So how do you do that? Removing stressors from your environment is ideal, but life is unlikely to be completely stress-free. The best solution is to learn how to manage stress. Changing how you respond to uncomfortable situations and events will lower your stress levels. That, in turn, helps your body maintain healthy cortisol levels, minimize emotional eating, and control your weight. When you do get stressed out, exercise is considered one of the best stress-busters. If you get the urge to snack, force yourself to stop what you’re doing and start moving. You can start with a short walk and build from there—you don’t have to run a marathon. Meditation and other relaxation techniques are also effective stress management tools. Beware of shortcuts to combat stress, cortisol and weight gain: don’t take any diet aids without discussing them with your provider. There are some bold claims for pills called “cortisol blockers,” but these statements are largely unsupported. If you are struggling, call your healthcare provider or find a counselor or therapist. You won’t be the first one to seek help for stress—it’s one of the most common reasons for people to see a doctor, either to seek relief or because stress has made them ill. Getting help for stress management—whether or not you are an emotional eater—will improve both your physical and mental health.