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Weight Loss » Can Stress Cause Weight Loss Even When Eating: Physiological Mechanisms Behind Stress-Related Weight Loss

Can Stress Cause Weight Loss Even When Eating: Physiological Mechanisms Behind Stress-Related Weight Loss

can stress cause weight loss even when eating

Have you noticed that you have been losing weight without trying and cannot explain the reason behind this? People claim that if you overtax yourself, either thorough work or due to personal matters you may find yourself shedding a couple of pounds without putting in any effort. But is this true? Can stress cause weight loss even when eating all the right foods?

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While many people would give almost anything to shed a couple of extra pounds, weight loss is not the goal for everyone. Some people hope to maintain their current weight while others may be struggling to add some extra kilograms. To these people unexplained weight loss is not something they desire.

If you are in either of these two groups and are wondering ‘why am I losing weight?’, read on to find out can stress cause weight loss even when eating, causes of unexplained weight loss, and risks of extreme weight loss and much more.

Can Stress Cause Weight Loss Even When Eating?

Yes, it can. We have all experienced it from time to time and it can be caused by different factors such as financial problems, pressure at work, family issues, romantic and platonic relationships, grief or loss, and other life changes. That being said, what exactly is stress? It is described as your body’s reaction to pressure from an event or situation (8). Other than weight loss, this reaction can manifest itself in the following ways (9):

  1. Physical: headaches, insomnia, unexplained aches and pains, a rapid heartbeat, constantly falling ill, decreased sex drive, stomach problems such as diarrhea, constipation, and nausea.
  2. Psychological: inability to concentrate, constant worrying, racing thoughts, poor judgement, and forgetfulness.
  3. Emotional: anxiety, depression, irritability, feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, a difficulty calming and quieting your mind, withdrawing socially, etc.
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Concerning weight, stress could either cause you to gain or lose weight. This is mostly connected to appetite changes experienced during this time. A study done on 72 women aged 17 to 26 years old showed 81% of the women experienced a change in appetite when stressed and of those, 62% reported an increased appetite..

Those who’s appetites increased reported making  unhealthy food choices by consuming high-sugar desserts, canned fruit, and high-calorie, high-fat foods like burgers or sandwich meat items, pizza, casseroles, tacos, and fast food (7). Another study published in 2009 revealed that some people under stress are more likely to eat even when they are not hungry (1).

But what happens if you are stressed, are not experiencing appetite changes, but are still losing weight without trying? How can stress cause weight loss even when eating and making healthy food choices?

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Also known as IBS, it is a common and chronic disease that causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation, among other symptoms. Despite it being a chronic illness it can be easily managed through the reduction of stress as well as a better diet and lifestyle (3).

Constant diarrhea (a symptom of IBS) can cause unexplained weight loss because your body is unable to absorb most of the food that you are consuming. Diarrhea leads to loss of important nutrients such as calories, protein, vitamins, water, sodium and potassium (4).

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  • Disruption Of The Vagus Nerve

This nerve is described as the body’s ‘superhighway’, it originates in the brain and once it gets to the neck it branches out in multiple directions going down to the torso (10). Some of its functions include controlling the muscles used to speak, the regulation of internal organ functions such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, reflex actions like sneezing and swallowing, etc (12). When you are stressed, the functions of this nerve are interrupted which in turn affects how your body digests, absorbs, and metabolizes food.

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  • Increased Levels Of Epinephrine

Also known as adrenaline, it is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands in the body. Whenever you are stressed, in danger or experience strong emotions such as anger, this hormone is released in large amounts, thus triggering your fight or flight response (14).

A surge of adrenaline in the body leads to an increase in heart rate, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarged pupils, redistributing blood to the muscles, and high blood pressure, all factors that affect your body’s metabolism by making it move faster. A faster metabolism means that you are burning calories faster than you normally would and this can lead to weight loss.

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  • Increased Physical Activity

One of the proven ways to reduce stress is through exercise. When you work out your body produces endorphins which promote feelings of happiness and boost your mood. Some people may end up over exercising trying to chase this feeling thus burning more calories and losing weight.

However, when stressed, not all physical activity is a conscious effort. Whenever people are stressed they tend to pace a lot which increases their steps for the day and burns calories. Involuntary stress tics such as clicking your fingers or tapping your foot increase your movement and help burn calories too.

  • Malabsorption

This is a disorder that occurs when you are unable to absorb nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, minerals, proteins, or vitamins from your diet. It is said to occur as a result of a disruption in at least one part of your digestion.

This disorder can cause temporary side effects such as bloating and stomach distention (swelling of the abdomen and not of the stomach itself), gas, stomach cramps, fatigue and weakness, diarrhea, etc. If left untreated it may cause more long-term effects that include iron-deficiency anemia, muscle loss (13), and secondary osteoporosis (6), among other effects.

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What Are Other Causes Of Unexplained Weight Loss?

While stress could be the cause of your sudden and unexplained weight loss, it is not the only culprit in this matter. Here are some other causes of weight loss (11):

  • Muscle wasting

Also known as muscle loss, it is the decrease in muscle mass due to lack of physical activity or proper nourishment. While this issue mostly occurs in people who live a mostly sedentary lifestyle, it can also be caused by factors such as aging, nerve damage, osteoarthritis, bone fractures, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and more.

  • Hyperthyroidism

This is a condition that occurs when you have an overactive thyroid that ends up producing too much thyroxine. High amounts of this hormone in the body leads to an excessively high metabolic rate; meaning that you burn calories at a much faster rate than what is considered normal, thus rapid and unintentional weight loss. Hyperthyroidism can also cause a rapid heart beat, high blood pressure, frequent bowel movements, hand tremors, and irregular menstrual cycles.

  • Addison’s disease

Also known as adrenal insufficiency, it is a disorder that occurs when your immune system attacks the adrenal glands making them produce less cortisol and aldosterone hormones.

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  • HIV

The human immunodeficiency virus is an illness that attacks the body’s immune system and if left untreated leads to AIDS. Persons with this virus start experiencing extreme weight loss during the third and most severe stage of this disease – Symptomatic HIV infection/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

  • Cancer

While signs and symptoms of this disease may vary depending on the specific type of cancer unexplained weight loss is one of the general signs and symptoms associated with this illness.

  • Depression

This is a mental disease that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in people and things around you. Those suffering from clinical depression may experience symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness, emptiness and sadness, anxiety, trouble thinking and concentrating, lack of energy and sleep disturbances. A lack of appetite is also one of the symptoms of depression and can be a direct cause of extreme weight loss.

  • Cardiac Cachexia

Also known as ‘body wasting’ it is a condition that occurs to people who have heart failure where they lose a large amount of body fat, muscle, and bone. People with this illness do not feel hungry very often which can accelerate the weight loss already caused by body wasting.

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Anxiety And Weight Loss: Can Being Constantly Anxious Make You Lose Weight?

Yes, it can. Sudden and unexplained weight loss is one of the symptoms of anxiety. People with anxiety disorder can find themselves losing weight because of (16):

  • Adrenaline

As mentioned above, this is the body’s fight or flight response which is always ‘on’ in people with anxiety. This response boosts your metabolism making you burn calories faster.

  • Hyperarousal

People diagnosed with anxiety are always on high alert and even when this feeling goes away, it never stays gone for very long. This means that their bodies never have enough time to recover from stress response stimulation, which in turn causes stomach and digestive problems. They will generally eat less, thus reducing their calorie intake causing weight loss.

  • Nervous energy

As stated above, stress and anxiety can make it difficult to sit still and relax. This makes you pace around a lot and other stress tics that burn calories and lead to weight loss.

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What Are Healthy Causes Of Weight Loss?

Healthy and sustainable weight loss is achieved through a proper diet and exercise. You are advised to eat a well-balanced diet without cutting out any major food groups. Your meals should consist of healthy carbohydrates, healthy fats, protein, vitamins and minerals.

A point to note is that even while consuming a proper and balanced diet, you should ensure to eat at a calorie deficit if you intend to lose weight. For healthy and sustainable weight loss you should ensure to reduce your daily calorie intake by 500 to 1000 calories a day – 3500 to 7000 calories a week (2).

What Is Extreme Weight Loss?

Extreme weight loss can be defined as the loss of more than 1 kilogram a week. According to the CDC, healthy and sustainable weight loss means a loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week (half a kg to 1 kg a week) (15). Anything more than that is considered extreme and unhealthy.

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What Are The Risks Associated With Extreme Weight Loss?

Extreme or rapid weight loss is not only unhealthy but it can also lead to several serious health risks. They include (5):

  • Malnutrition

Also known as nutritional deficiency, it occurs whenever the body doesn’t absorb enough nutrients from food ingested or it does not get enough food to provide it with the necessary amount of a nutrient. This leads to illnesses such as anemia, short-term memory loss, eye problems, dementia, skin disorders, reproductive problems, and more.

  • Dehydration

This occurs when your body uses or loses more fluid than it receives and it doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions. Remember to always drink plenty of water and be careful of acute diarrhea as it also leads to loss of water in the body.

  • Gallstones

These are pieces of solid material that form in your gallbladder, and are caused by either too much cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile. While the risk factors of gallstones are many, extreme weight loss is one of reasons why you may get them.

Extreme weight loss also causes other short-term side effects such as headaches, hair and muscle loss, fatigue, constipation, dizziness, mood swings, and menstrual irregularities in women.

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The Bottom Line: Can A Stress Cause Weight Loss Even When Eating?

Yes, it can. While stress is mostly a mental thing, it can cause problems with your hormones and digestive tract which can make it hard for your body to absorb and utilize the food that you are giving it. That being said, stress and anxiety are not the only things that can lead to unexplained and often extreme weight loss. If you realize that you are losing weight without trying, do not be tempted to chalk it up to stress. Please visit your doctor so you can ascertain that it is not a bigger problem that it appears.

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DISCLAIMER:

This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

SOURCES:

  1. Acute stress-related changes in eating in the absence of hunger (2009, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  2. Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics (2020, mayoclinic.org)
  3. Irritable bowel syndrome (2020, mayoclinic.org)
  4. Nutrition Problems and Their Solutions (2020, clevelandclinic.org)
  5. Rapid Weight Loss (2019, webmd.com)
  6. Secondary Osteoporosis in Gastrointestinal Disorders (n.d, medpagetoday.com)
  7. Stress influences appetite and comfort food preferences in college women (2006, sciencedirect.com)
  8. Stress Symptoms (2019, webmd.com)
  9. Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes (2020, helpguide.org)
  10. The Vagus Nerve: Your Body’s Communication Superhighway (2019, livescience.com)
  11. Unexplained weight loss (2020, mayoclinic.org)
  12. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  13. What causes malabsorption? (2018, medicalnewstoday.com)
  14. What is Epinephrine (Adrenaline)? (2019, news-medical.net)
  15. What is healthy weight loss? (2020, cdc.gov)
  16. Weight Loss; Sudden Weight Loss Anxiety Symptom (2020, anxietycentre.com)
Clare Kamau

Clare Kamau

Clare is an excellent and experienced writer who has a great interest in nutrition, weight loss, and working out. She believes that everyone should take an interest in health and fitness, as not only do they improve your way of life, but they can also have a significant impact on your health.
As a writer, her goal is to educate her readers about the ways they can reprogram themselves to enjoy exercise, as well as break free from bad eating habits. In her articles, Clare tries to give advice which is backed by scientific research and is also easy to follow on a day-to-day basis. She believes that everyone, no matter their age, gender, or fitness level, can always learn something new that can benefit their health.

Kristen Fleming

Kristen Fleming

I am a U.S. educated and trained Registered Dietitian (MS, RD, CNSC) with clinical and international development experience. I have experience conducting systematic reviews and evaluating the scientific literature both as a graduate student and later to inform my own evidence-based practice as an RD. I am currently based in Lusaka, Zambia after my Peace Corps service was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic and looking for some meaningful work to do as I figure out next steps. This would be my first freelance project, but I am a diligent worker and quite used to independent and self-motivated work.

Kristen Fleming, MS, RD, CNSC

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