How Anxiety Can Cause Weight Loss or Weight Gain (2023)

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

How can anxiety cause weight loss?

Anxiety disorders can trigger weight loss in some people. Research suggests that this might be due to increased metabolism during high anxiety periods and certain anti-anxiety medications that cause weight loss as a side effect.

1. Anxiety might speed up your metabolism

Human studies are pretty thin on the ground when it comes to anxiety and weight loss.

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But a study with mice found that when researchers engineered a particular gene out of certain areas of their brains, they developed symptoms that resembled anxiety — and stayed super lean in the process.

You know how, in some people, anxiety leads to fidgeting or pacing? Well, that could be contributing to weight loss.

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2. Some anti-anxiety medications can cause weight loss

If you get a prescription for anti-anxiety meds, some of them cause weight loss as a side effect.

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In one study, some medications, such as bupropion, showed weight loss effects over a long period of taking them.

But weight loss only occurs with specific antidepressants, and weight gain is more commonly an unexpected outcome of taking medications to manage your anxiety. A study found that several classes of antidepressant medications have links to weight gain.

It’s best to speak with your prescribing physician to manage your expectations of whether the suggested medication is going to impact your weight.

3. Anxiety can reduce your appetite

Have you ever been so worried about an assignment or chore that you’ve worked right through lunch? Or stewed in your room for hours on end about a particular problem before realizing that you’ve lost a whole chunk of time without eating?

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There may well be stress hormones behind your lost appetite. A research review found that your body produces a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) that messes with your desire to eat.

Eating less food while your metabolism is potentially amped up could mean that you start shedding a few pounds.

How can anxiety increase weight gain?

Anxiety doesn’t only chip away at the pounds. It can be just as likely to trigger changes that increase your body mass.

1. Anxiety can mess with your sleep, which has links to weight gain

Getting plenty of high quality sleep is essential for managing your weight.

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A small 2010 study found that participants lost less body fat and more lean mass when they slept for 5.5 hours rather than 8.5 hours. Those who slept for less time also reported feeling more peckish during their waking hours.

But for those who have an anxiety disorder, catching enough Zzz’s can be a real challenge.

“Anxiety can cause disrupted sleep and, in turn, increased fatigue. Both of these things can cause you to crave unhealthy foods, burn fewer calories, and decrease your willpower to avoid unhealthy food,” says Sari Chait, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Newton, Massachusetts.

When you don’t get enough sleep, not only are your defenses down (making it harder to make diet and exercise choices that support your weight-management goals), but sleep deprivation also throws your body’s hunger system for a loop.

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One research review found that participants who got less sleep produced more ghrelin (a hormone that sounds like something Phoebe Cates would have to slay in a classic 80s Christmas movie, but which actually triggers hunger) than participants who slept a full 8 hours.

2. Anxiety can cause cortisol to spike, which may cause fat gain

A 2011 study showed that while anxiety can speed up your metabolism and release appetite-suppressing hormones, there is also a correlation with increased levels of cortisol.

“Scientists believe that the body releases cortisol when we experience heightened levels of stress or anxiety,” Chait says. “A 2013 research review suggested that increased levels of cortisol can cause weight gain or make it harder to lose weight.”

When anxiety or stress kicks off your body’s “fight-or-flight” response, more cortisol starts to circulate. This can mess with your metabolism.

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Cortisol is a stress hormone that causes your body to release sugar. Your body notices that you’re stressed out and thinks you need a burst of sugar to provide you with energy (such as when you need to run away from a tiger, except, in this case, the tiger is a public-speaking engagement or deadline).

“This can cause an increase in appetite and a craving for sweet, high fat, and salty foods,” says Vanessa Rissetto, RD.

So yes, there is a scientific reason that you reach for the donuts in a bid to cast away these jittery feelings.

3. Anxiety can make it harder to make healthy food choices

It can sometimes be difficult to focus on what’s best for you when your brain and body are screaming at you about everything under the sun.

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“People with anxiety may have a hard time making decisions about what to eat, resulting in them eating more unhealthy food,” Chait says.

It’s also much easier to lose track of what you’re eating when you’re feeling anxious. That distracted eating can add up to extra pounds.

“Similarly, anxiety can cause people to be distracted, which may cause them to eat aimlessly, paying less attention to what they’re eating or how much they’re eating,” Chait says.

4. Some anti-anxiety medications can cause weight gain

Medications for anxiety and its close cousin, depression, are a common method for helping people cope with these mental health conditions. But they’re not without their side effects, and one of those is potential weight gain.

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A study suggested that using antidepressant medication has links to an increased risk of obesity, while depression and anxiety can double up on the risk, adding their own weight gain effects.

If you’re worried about weight gain and have a prescription for anti-anxiety meds or antidepressants, talk with your doctor about the possible side effects and how to keep them at bay.

5. Anxiety can make it harder to get to the gym

Exercise can help you lose weight and chill you out (among many other health benefits).

But when you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed, lacing up your shoes and going to the gym is usually the last thing you feel like doing. This is probably why a 2011 study showed a connection between anxiety and a lower rate of participation in physical activity.

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“When some people are anxious, they move and exercise less,” Chait says. And the less you move, the harder it is for your body to burn calories (and for you to lose weight in the process). “Their metabolism will slow down with decreased physical activity.”

How to manage your anxiety and weight fluctuation

Clearly, anxiety and weight control do not play well in the sandbox together, but enough about the problem. Let’s talk about the solution.

1. Keep an anxiety journal by your bed

If your anxiety is keeping you up at night, try keeping a journal next to your bed. Every time you find yourself struggling with an anxious thought or feeling, write it down.

Getting your anxiety out of your head and onto paper can make it feel less pressing or immediate, which can help you let go of the anxiety and get to sleep.

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Also, it can sometimes just feel good to vent. See it as the toilet paper for the massive poop your brain needs to take.

2. Try mindfulness meditation

If you need a secret weapon to battle your anxiety, your best bet is meditation — and, in particular, mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness practice, which involves focusing on the present moment, has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and lower your body’s stress responses (including hormone and inflammatory responses).

And the best part? Your body can start reaping the anxiety-reducing benefits after a single session, according to a study.

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To get started with mindfulness meditation, you can do it on your own or with a guide. To try it alone, follow these steps:

  1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  2. Focus on your breath.
  3. When thoughts pop up (which they 100-percent will!), acknowledge them and bring your attention back to your breath.
  4. Rinse and repeat every time you get distracted by a thought.

You can also use an app to help guide you through meditation, which can be a great place to start — especially if the idea of meditating feels a bit intimidating.

One good choice is the new app Awaken, which offers a whole host of Buddhism- inspired guided meditations as short as 2 minutes for de-stressing and self- care.

3. Coax yourself into hitting the gym (or at least taking a walk)

Ugh. We fully understand. Getting to the gym or heading outside for a workout can feel so overwhelming when you’re laid out with anxious feelings. But it’s one of the best things you can do for your body and brain.

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Exercise helps you lose weight, but a research review also showed that it reduces physical and mental symptoms of anxiety and improves mood and sleep — all of which will help you lose weight.

It’s like a positive feedback loop that will leave you feeling better mentally and physically.

If your anxiety is making it hard to work out on a regular basis, start slow. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a 10-minute walk can be just as effective for relieving anxiety as longer, more intense exercise.

And once your anxiety is in check, it’ll be easier to get to the gym and start doing the kinds of workouts that will move the needle on the scale.

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The important part is to start small, then increase your involvement, which will lead to less anxiety and more assurance: Short walks can lead to longer walks, which can lead to alternating walking and running, and eventually lead to a 5K.

Set goals along the way for continued improvement, but start wherever you are and keep at it. It also helps a lot to let somebody know what you plan to do.

Talking about a goal can help you make it real and enable the first steps toward smashing it.

Takeaway

Anxiety can cause your weight to fluctuate due to hormones, medication side effects, and changes to appetite control mechanisms in the body.

This varies person-to-person, so it’s vital to keep an eye on any changes in your body and make adjustments to your eating and sleeping routines if you’re looking to manage your body mass.

Putting in place healthy coping mechanisms, like exercise and mindfulness meditation, can help you tackle the anxiety at the source and break the cycle of weight gain or weight loss.

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