Did you gain weight during the pandemic? Stress could be to blame

24, 2021

6 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

This story originally appeared on The Conversation

By Lina Begdache , Binghamton University, State University of New York

If you’ve experienced unwanted weight gain or loss during the pandemic, you are not alone. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults in the United States reported an unwanted weight change since the beginning of the pandemic.

The results, published in March 2021, showed that during the pandemic, 42% of those surveyed gained unwanted weight – 29 pounds on average (13 kilos) – and almost 10% of those people gained more than 50 pounds (22 kilos). On the other hand, almost 18% of Americans reported experiencing unwanted weight loss – an average of 26 pounds (12 kilos).

Another study published in March evaluated weight change in 269 people from February to June 2020. The researchers found, on average, that people gaineda constant 1.5 pounds (.7 kilos) per month .

I am a nutritional neuroscientist , and my research studies the relationship between diet, lifestyle, stress, and mental distress, such as anxiety and depression.

The common denominator of changes in body weight, especially during a pandemic, is stress. Another survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in January 2021 revealed that about 84% of American adults experienced at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the previous two weeks.

The findings on unwanted weight changes make sense in a stressful world, especially in the context of the body’s stress response, better known as the fight or flight response.

A 3D model of cortisol

Neurotransmitters like cortisol mediate the fight or flight response, which influences appetite and digestion. Ben Mills / Wikimedia Commons

Fight, flight and food

The fight or flight response is an innate reaction that evolved as a survival mechanism. It allows humans to react quickly to acute stress – such as a predator – or to adapt to chronic stress – such as food shortages. In the face of stress, the body wants to keep the brain alert. It lowers the levels of some hormones and brain chemicals to ward off behaviors that won’t help in an emergency situation, and it raises other hormones that will.

When under the influence of stress, the body lowers the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin . Serotonin regulates emotions, appetite, and digestion. Thus, low serotonin levels increase anxiety and can change a person’s eating habits . Dopamine – another wellness neurotransmitter – regulates goal-oriented motivation . Decreased dopamine levels can translate into less motivation to exercise, maintain a healthy lifestyle, or perform daily tasks. When people are stressed, they also produce less melatonin, the sleep hormone , which causes problems sleeping.

Epinephrine and norepinephrine mediate physiological changes associated with stress and are elevated in stressful situations . These biochemical changes can cause mood swings, influence people’s eating habits, reduce goal-oriented motivation, and alter a person’s circadian rhythm.

In general, stress can throw off eating habits and motivation to exercise or eat healthy, and the past year has certainly been stressful for everyone.

A spoon with chocolate spread

Many people find comfort in high-calorie foods. MarianVejcik / iStock via Getty Images Plus

Easy calories, little motivation

In both studies, people reported their weight and the researchers did not collect any information on physical activity. But it can be cautiously assumed that most of the weight changes were due to people gaining or losing body fat.

So why have people gained or lost weight in the past year? And what explains the drastic differences?

Many people find comfort in high-calorie foods. This is because chocolate and other sweets can make us happy by increasing serotonin levels in the short term . However, the blood removes the extra sugar very quickly, so the mental stimulus is short-lived, leading people to eat more. Eating for comfort can be a natural response to stress, but when combined with decreased motivation to exercise and the consumption of low-nutrient, calorie-dense foods, stress can lead to unwanted weight gain.

What about weight loss? Simply put, the brain is connected to the gut through a two-way communication system called the vagus nerve . When you’re stressed, the body inhibits the signals that travel through the vagus nerve and slows down the digestive process. When this happens, people experience satiety.

In some countries, and also in the United States, the pandemic has led to an increase in hunger . Lack of food and / or money to buy it are other reasons why people may have lost weight inadvertently.

In other countries, the pandemic left many people confined to their homes, bored and with plenty of food and little to distract themselves. If the stress factor is added to this scenario, it is the perfect situation for unwanted weight changes to occur.

Stress will always be a part of life, but there are things that can be done like – practicing positive self-talk – that can help avoid the stress response and some of its unwanted consequences.

This article was translated by Univision . This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article .

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