Stress, weight (gain) and non-communicable diseases

Stress, weight (gain) and non-communicable diseases

What is stress?

According to the World Health Organization, stress refers to a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. It can manifest through feelings of anxiety, worry, and pressure. Common sources of stress include work demands, financial difficulties, relationship issues, and significant life changes. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way we respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to our overall well-being.

How does stress affect us?

When you experience stress, your body releases “fight-or-flight” stress hormones to prepare your body to deal with the stress. One of these hormones, cortisol, determines how much and what type of energy your body needs at that point in time – fats, proteins or carbohydrates. It is normal for your cortisol levels to go up and down throughout the day, but when you are chronically stressed your cortisol level goes up and stays there. Stress affects both the mind and the body. A little bit of stress is good and can help us perform daily activities. However, too much stress can cause physical and mental health problems. Learning how to cope with stress can help us feel less overwhelmed and support our mental and physical well-being.

What are the signs of stress?

Stress makes it hard for us to relax and can come with a range of emotions, including anxiety and irritability. When stressed, we may find it difficult to concentrate. We may experience headaches or other body pains, an upset stomach or trouble sleeping. We may find we lose our appetite or eat more than usual. Chronic stress can worsen pre-existing health problems and may increase our use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances, cause or worsen mental health conditions, most commonly anxiety and depression, which require access to health care. Chronically elevated cortisol makes your body think times are hard and you might starve, so it hoards the fat you eat or have on your body.

How does it relate to weight gain and non-communicable diseases?

Cortisol tends to move fat from healthier areas, like the butt and hips, to the abdomen. This belly fat has a higher capacity to produce active cortisol. The more belly fat you have, the more active cortisol you produce thus creating a vicious cycle. It also blocks the effect of insulin – the hormone that ensures that glucose from food is properly used or stored. Cortisol does this so that there is energy/glucose available to be used by the muscles in the “fight-or-flight” response to the stressor. As a result, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases because the blood glucose levels remain high, and insulin cannot transport glucose to the cells that need it for basic bodily functions. When the cells do not get the glucose they need, this signals your brain to eat more food. This leads to a desire for high-calorie foods, overeating, and the resulting weight gain and belly fat. Excess belly fat is a major risk factor for high blood pressure because it causes the arteries to contract, making their diameters harder for the blood to flow. The reduced diameter of the arteries means that the heart must pump harder to get blood to all body parts, causing coronary heart disease – the single most important risk factor for stroke and other associated problems.

Managing how we respond to stress will therefore go a long way in controlling NCDs. You can find more information on Stress Management here and here.


Rhona Kezabu Baingana is a nutrition scientist with the Department of Biochemistry and Sports Science, Makerere University, Uganda, with over 20 years’ experience in nutrition. She was a founding member of Uganda Action for Nutrition which transformed into the Nutrition Society of Uganda. Rhona holds a PhD (Makerere University), MSc (King’s College London), and BSc (Southampton University). Rhona is passionate about nutrition and is keen to use her knowledge and experience to support Ugandans eat healthy as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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