It’s more important than ever to learn how you can stop gaining weight from anxiety, with rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other illnesses. Financial, professional and family troubles add enough stress to our lives without causing weight gain too.
Physical consequences of anxiety are common, including unwanted weight gain. However, addressing unhealthy lifestyle habits and the metabolic effects of stress hormones can help stop gaining weight from anxiety.
Preventing excess stress hormone production can involve reducing psychological stress; rebalancing the production of hormones and neurotransmitters; improving cognitive performance and reducing the physical harms of stress. Let’s look at how anxiety affects the body, and how specific remedies may help.
The connection between anxiety and weight gain
If you have been through a stressful period and notice that your favourite clothes no longer fit, you’re not alone. Anxiety and weight gain are linked – but you may notice this more in front of the mirror than on standard scales.
Hormonal effects of stress are responsible for the connection between anxiety and weight gain. However, your body composition may be affected more than your total weight.
The main stress hormone, cortisol, is responsible for the negative effects of stress on body weight and composition.
While we need cortisol to wake us up in the morning, it is harmless when it follows the healthy rhythm of spiking in the morning, and then slowly tapering down until we sleep at night. The problems start when it remains high all day long because of stress.
Cortisol and cravings
The overall aim of cortisol is to increase available energy for the fight or flight response. For this reason, chronic stress and cortisol are linked to weight gain partly through increased appetite. You may feel as though you need the energy at the time, but researchers notice a pattern of “eating in the absence of hunger”.
During difficult life periods and testing, elevated stress and cortisol levels increase cravings and food intake. This is usually for calorie-dense, sugary and salty junk foods, with volunteers reporting they are more satisfied with these than healthy foods. Only people with high levels of restraint avoid this, but it’s much harder to change your mindset during periods of stress.
If you cannot avoid certain stresses in your life, remember that these cravings are intended to compensate for increased physical work. Swapping sedentary activity for active hobbies can go a long way in absorbing the impact of stress-induced cravings and make you fitter overall.
At-home workouts, dance or Pilates classes can be helpful if your only time off is at night, and you cannot go to a gym.
If you are particularly stressed about work, visit:
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Stress hormones may break down muscle tissue
There has been an increase in what is known as “sarcopenic” obesity in recent years. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle tissue, which leads to the “apple on sticks” picture of overweight and obesity. This is the type we see with chronically elevated cortisol.
Additionally, muscle burns energy and allows us to be more active, so losing muscle tissue can cause fat gain. If we don’t break the cycle, continued weight gain can be the result.
Can cortisol cause belly fat?
Research shows that abdominal obesity increases with chronically high cortisol. Even children exposed to too much cortisol during pregnancy have a higher risk of carrying excess belly fat.
The stress hormone cortisol contributes to weight gain by increasing cravings for junk food, as well as causing loss of muscle mass.
These herbs are the best natural anxiety relievers
If you’re looking for the best natural anxiety relievers, lemon balm, valerian, gotu kola, ashwagandha and lavender may be right for you. As herbal teas, they are affordable and accessible options to brighten your day.
Herbal medicines act as natural anxiety relievers through helping to restore balance to your neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and hormones. They can make you feel happier, sleep better, think clearer and perform to the levels you want to reach.
Lemon balm to make you feel happy
Lemon balm can make you feel happy just by its bright, citrus scent, but studies show that it can calm anxiety in a range of situations too.
One clinical trial compared two doses of lemon balm, at 300mg and 600mg, to a placebo during a stressful cognitive test. While the placebo group became more stressed after the testing, the 600mg group were significantly more relaxed despite having just done the same test. The 300mg group found the test less stressful, but this was not seen as significant.
In the lab, lemon balm is shown to reduce levels of cortisol, which as we know is responsible for anxiety-induced weight gain. Through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, it helps to protect brain cells against damage from stress too.
To learn more about lemon balm, visit:
Valerian to sleep better at night
If you are having trouble sleeping as a result of stress, or perhaps your insomnia is causing stress and anxiety, valerian may be the herbal remedy for you.
There are many studies on valerian to sleep better at night and relieve anxiety, and a review has found that it is effective in high-quality, higher-dose preparations. Valerian can improve sleep duration, sleep quality and the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This last part is especially important for our overall health, as REM sleep isn’t only for dreaming, but for restoring the brain and body as a whole.
When it comes to how valerian relieves stress, it is able to increase levels of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, while moderating brain activity to create a calmer pattern. However, unlike conventional treatment, valerian does not dampen alertness, so you won’ t be dealing with a medication “hangover” the next day.
For more on valerian, check out:
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- Which Herbal Teas Should I Drink for Stress and Anxiety?
Gotu kola may be good for anxiety
Gotu kola is a wonderful antioxidant, connective tissue-supporting herb with potential anti-aging effects, but it may be good for anxiety and improving cognitive function too.
Clinical studies show that gotu kola is able to relieve anxiety and improve mental performance at the same time. In older volunteers with mild age-related cognitive impairment, gotu kola improved MMSE scores (a measurement of Alzheimer’s disease) while reducing anxiety and insomnia. In younger adults with generalised anxiety disorder, gotu kola relieved anxiety and depression and improved attention. It was even able to increase IQ in an older study involving mentally disabled children.
Gotu kola has a number of benefits for brain health. It can improve cellular energy production and assist in the growth and development of brain cells, which has benefits ranging from better memory to reduced depression.
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of gotu kola involve boosting the activity of our own protective mechanisms and slowing down age-related damage.
Take ashwagandha to decrease anxiety
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a type of herbal medicine that improves your body’s response to physical and metal stresses. If you feel as though you’re getting old, it can restore your youthful stress response.
You can also use ashwagandha to decrease anxiety and improve sleep. A clinical study demonstrated increased sleep time from four hours and 21 minutes, to five hours and 11 minutes, after 10 weeks of taking ashwagandha extract.
The time it took to fall asleep fell from 41 minutes down to 29 minutes too. Even though volunteers slept for an average of 50 minutes longer, their total time in bed only rose by 30 minutes, because they fell asleep faster and didn’t wake up so much at night.
Anxiety scores fell from 23.6 on average, down to 18.5 after 10 weeks. This is a fall from being on the edge of moderate severity (25-30), to the lower end of mild anxiety (18-24). These benefits are likely caused by ashwagandha’s ability to reduce cortisol, as your improved physical stress response turns down the need for more cortisol.
For more on ashwagandha for women, read:
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Lavender tea may relieve anxiety and depression
Lavender is the classic calming herbal remedy as an essential oil, but as a tea it may relieve anxiety and depression too.
A review of 30 studies found that almost everyone showed that lavender could relieve anxiety. These included using lavender as a herbal supplement, as aromatherapy and as a massage oil.
Of the three that measured cortisol, levels of the stress hormone fell significantly too. Lavender may also relieve anxiety and depression by increasing the production of new brain cells and their development into healthy, well-connected cells. The slow, natural process of brain regeneration allows for physical resilience in the face of stress and reduces burden on the brain.
Lemon balm, valerian, gotu kola, ashwagandha and lavender may be effective natural anxiety relievers, through their abilities to reduce cortisol, raise GABA, protect brain cells and support the development of new ones.
Lifestyle changes to reduce anxiety
Beyond herbal medicines, there are lifestyle changes to reduce anxiety that don’t need to be expensive or too time-consuming. In many cases, they involve changing how you spend your time, and don’t always require you to have more time to spare.
Exercise, mindfulness practices and improving sleep are the main lifestyle changes to reduce anxiety. Like herbal remedies, they reduce cortisol while improving your body’s resilience to stress and the process of brain cell regeneration.
Exercise for a clearer mind
Regular exercise, especially when you go outside, has a number of benefits for a less anxious, clearer mind. Studies show a moderate, but still significant effect of exercise against anxiety and other issues such as depression.
Physical activity can lower cortisol levels while boosting brain cell regeneration, helping you achieve a clearer mind while losing weight.
Any exercise, including workouts at home, can relieve anxiety, but going outside in nature is even better. The practice of “forest bathing”, for example, may reduce anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue. It could increase immune cell counts, return the fight or flight response to balance, and lower cortisol too.
Mindfulness to reduce stress
Mindfulness is the state of being fully present in the current moment and is known to reduce stress. You can practice mindfulness with anything you do, whether you are at work, enjoying a hobby, or going for a walk or swim. However, most research on mindfulness focuses on meditation and yoga.
For example, a study on mindfulness tested the benefits of a three-month yoga and meditation retreat. This itself is not realistic for most of us but demonstrates what continuous mindfulness can do. Yoga and meditation provided significant relief of anxiety by increasing brain cell regeneration and lowering cortisol.
Mindfulness at home can be like regular yoga or meditation practice, or something else entirely.
If you are trying to be mindful in everything you do and find your mind wandering, consider a focus point to draw your attention back. This could be your breath, something in front of you (such as what you are holding), or just wriggling your toes.
Improve sleep to lower your stress hormone levels at night
Sometimes, it’s necessary to lower your stress hormone levels at night to prevent unwanted weight gain.
The healthy rhythm of cortisol involves a peak in the morning, and then a gradual fall throughout the day, with the lowest levels while we sleep. Stress can keep this up, creating a nasty cycle of insomnia.
The herbal remedies we describe above that improve sleep are useful when you are regularly waking up at night or have poor sleep quality.
Cortisol wakes us up and lowers melatonin, the sleep hormone, but restoring melatonin keeps cortisol low at night. Improving sleep may therefore calm anxiety and help you stop gaining weight.
Other ways to enjoy a better night’s rest include keeping away from screens before bed, or using a blue light filter if you can’t, as blue light mimics the morning sun.
Can Too Much Exercise Increase Stress?
Too much exercise can not only stress you out through a demanding schedule and over-exertion but increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol too. The muscle-breaking properties of cortisol mean that over-exercise can give you the exact opposite of the results you want.
Like herbal medicines, exercise, mindfulness activities and improved sleep hygiene are able to calm anxiety by bringing cortisol down and brain cell regeneration up.
When to seek professional help for anxiety
There are unfortunately times when home remedies such as herbal tea aren’t enough, and you need professional help with anxiety.
However, it is important that you don’t hesitate, because the consequences of untreated issues can be serious.
Reasons to seek professional help for anxiety are both mental health, for example anxiety disorders, and physical health issues, including hormonal problems.
Mental health issues that require support from professionals include generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may require therapy if:
- Your anxiety prevents you from living a normal life, such as going to work, seeing friends or even from going outside at all.
- You don’t just have trouble with public speaking, but with speaking in everyday situations such as to friends or colleagues.
- You have unwanted, intrusive thoughts with no clear cause
- There is an ever-growing list of things you need to do in order to calm anxiety
- Situations where you were once comfortable have become too difficult
As for physical health problems, visiting your doctor for further support is necessary if you have these signs of excess cortisol:
- You are gaining weight without eating more, particularly if it is abdominal fat
- You have lost muscle mass. This is especially a concern when you have developed the “apple on sticks” figure without any change to your exercise routine or diet.
- Infections have become more common
- Your most recent medical examinations have revealed high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar
- You have trouble sleeping that doesn’t go away, regardless of what you do.
Situations where you require medical support for anxiety include mental health issues, where anxiety stops you from doing everyday activities, and physical illnesses involving high cortisol.
Anxiety leads to weight gain because of the stress hormone cortisol, as it breaks down muscle while triggering cravings for junk food.
Thankfully, there are many remedies that can help. Herbal medicines include lemon balm, valerian and ashwagandha protect the brain and reduce cortisol.
If they are not enough on their own, lifestyle changes such as increasing mindfulness and exercise are helpful in the same ways.