Gaining Weight During the Pandemic?

Chronic stress affects weight gain differently in men and women.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Along with infection, the viral pandemic is spreading chronic stress worldwide. The threat of being stricken with a deadly disease, suffering the loss of loved ones, losing one's job, and being socially isolated are major life stresses — now compounded in a way that few of us have experienced.

The effects of chronic stress on the brain and body are profound and complex. While the body can become emaciated by stress, less obvious, perhaps, is that putting on excess weight is one of the most common biological consequences of chronic stress. Surprisingly, the latest research indicates that stress affects weight gain differently in males and females.

What we call “stress” is the gut-wrenching emotion generated by the brain after assessing our internal and external situation and concluding that we are in mortal danger. The body amps up all systems, putting them on high alert to prepare to battle an impending peril.

Deep in an unconscious part of the brain, neurons in the hypothalamus automatically send out chemical and neurological alarm signals that set the heart racing, boost blood pressure, energize twitching muscles, and refocus all systems on the mission of survival. Stress hormones (glucocorticoids) flood the bloodstream to reach all parts of the body with powerful, wide-ranging effects. Like revving a car engine to “redline” to pass a vehicle, this stress response pushes the body to its limits to vanquish a threat, but if this state is sustained for long periods, serious damage is inevitable.

Just as people at the start of the pandemic hoarded food, leaving grocery shelves bare, one of the effects of stress hormones is to shift the body’s metabolism to generate and hoard fat, as well as compel us to eat more energy-rich food. However, most experimental studies use male animals, under the presumption that the effects would be similar in females. That assumption may not always hold, particularly in biological processes that involve hormones.

In a new study by researchers at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and the University of Cincinnati, the stress hormone corticosterone was given to male and female rats for two weeks. The results were that male rats were more prone to corticosterone-induced increases in body fat than females. This new investigation backs up a previous study by researchers in Brazil, published in 2019. Those researchers proposed that protective effects of estrogen in females may alter the receptors for corticosterone on cells, making females less likely to become obese from chronic stress.

In addition to the body shifting gears to make its metabolism synthesize more fat, researchers in Japan showed that treating mice (males) with corticosterone causes them to voluntarily eat more fatty food, thereby causing obesity. In these studies, the mice that were treated with stress hormone developed a craving for corn oil and slurped up that fatty food to excess.

Interestingly, being exposed to short days and long nights, which can cause chronic depression during winter, boosts weight gain in male mice treated with corticosterone to even higher levels than when the stress hormone is given under summertime day length.

How can you use this biological insight to improve your own health during chronic stresses, including the unprecedented stress of the pandemic that we have endured for months, and with no clear end in sight?

As in this pandemic, often there is little one can do to remove the cause of chronic stress. But if you are aware of the biological consequences, you can take action. These scientific facts indicate that if you find your belly suddenly growing soft and fatty and your weight jumping up unexpectedly, you should consider the possibility that chronic stress may be responsible, especially if you are male. 

Be aware that putting on pounds under stress is even more likely during winter months. You can override your biologically programmed urge to overindulge in meals while under stress. Keep your meal proportions down to normal size and don’t give in to your body’s sudden craving for fat.

Most importantly, you can burn off that fat in the way that nature intended this defense mechanism to work to fortify your ability to combat the threat physically. While you may not be able to battle the sources of chronic stress in the modern world in the way our bodies were designed to battle being attacked by wild animals or facing starvation in winter, you can go to battle on your treadmill. Exercise will burn the excess fat and put your amped up muscles and cardiovascular system on the mission that they are revved up by chronic stress to confront.