Can Burnout Cause You To Gain Weight?

May 8, 2024
A stressed woman at work.

In today’s fast-paced, high-pressure work environments, burnout has become an increasingly common phenomenon. A Deloitte survey of 1,000 full-time U.S. professionals found that 77% of employees (84% of millennials) have experienced burnout at their current job, and more than half report that it has occurred more than once. Over 90% of employees report dealing with an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration. The results of a Gallop poll surveying 7,500 employees were similar.

While the negative impacts of burnout on mental health and job performance are well-documented, its influence on physical well-being is often overlooked. Chronic work stress and burnout can trigger unintended weight gain, which can worsen psychological stress and negatively impact health.

Why Burnout Causes Weight Gain

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that arises from prolonged exposure to excessive workplace demands and inadequate resources to manage them effectively. Unlike typical work-related stress, burnout is characterized by a profound sense of detachment, exhaustion, and a diminished sense of accomplishment.

The key symptoms of burnout include:

  • Emotional exhaustion: Feeling drained, depleted, and unable to cope with work demands.
  • Depersonalization: Developing a detached attitude towards work and colleagues.
  • Reduced personal accomplishment: Feeling ineffective and lacking a sense of achievement in one’s work.

These symptoms can manifest in various ways, such as irritability, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, and physical ailments like headaches and gastrointestinal issues.

The primary drivers of burnout are often rooted in organizational factors, such as:1

  • Excessive workloads and unrealistic deadlines
  • Lack of autonomy and control over one’s work
  • Insufficient support or resources from management
  • Unclear job expectations or role ambiguity
  • Poor work-life balance and limited opportunities for recovery
  • Lack of recognition and appreciation
  • Poor management practices
  • Unfair or inequitable workplace treatment
  • Lack of opportunities for growth

When these stressors persist over an extended period, the body’s stress response system becomes chronically activated, which can lead to weight gain.

A stressed and anxious woman worried about Why Burnout Causes Weight Gain

Stress

Chronic stress, a hallmark of burnout, triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which plays a central role in the link between burnout and unintended weight gain.2

Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” handles the body’s fight-or-flight response. In short-term, acute stress situations, this hormonal surge causes a release of glucose to give you the energy you need to manage a stressful situation. This is followed by metabolic responses to restore your energy stores.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels can:3,4

  • Increase appetite and cravings for high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, particularly those rich in sugar and fat.
  • Increase abdominal fat, which is associated with an increased risk of chronic health conditions.
  • Disrupt the body’s normal metabolic processes, leading to a slower resting metabolic rate and reduced calorie-burning efficiency.
  • Increase dopamine release in the brain, which triggers the reward circuit. Hyperpalatable foods offer short-term pleasure and relief from stress-induced discomfort.
  • Change the gut microbiome. Scientists are investigating the potential links between gut health and chronic anxiety and stress.

Lack of Sleep

Burnout and chronic stress can cause sleep deprivation, which contributes to weight gain and increases the risk of metabolic disease, including abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, heart-related disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Several studies have shown an association between short sleep duration and high body mass index (BMI). Lack of sleep reduces daily movement, motivation, and baseline metabolic rate, which can all contribute to unintended weight gain.

Having burnout can impact your sleep in the following ways:5,6

  • Insomnia: Stress, increased cortisol levels, and hyperarousal make it more difficult to fall asleep. Exhaustion associated with burnout reduces your tolerance for everyday stressors and ability to problem solve. Low levels of exhaustion can induce sleep, but as exhaustion increases, it makes getting to sleep more challenging.
  • Fragmented sleep: Anxiety and stress can cause frequent nighttime awakenings that contribute to exhaustion.
  • Poor-quality sleep: People who report high burnout levels also experience non-restorative sleep. Even with adequate sleep, they awaken feeling exhausted.
Business man asleep at his desk

Lack of Free Time

A busy schedule, lack of sleep, exhaustion, and lack of motivation can compound burnout symptoms and impact your ability to relax and socialize with others.

A lack of free time worsens burnout symptoms, leading to an unhealthy cycle that increases stress and pressure, reduces your mind and body’s ability to recover, further disrupts work-like balance, and sets unrealistic scheduling expectations.

Burnout and chronically high stress levels increase your risk for non-communicable chronic diseases, mental health conditions, and premature death.7

Unhealthy Coping Strategies

Emotional and binge eating behaviors are commonly used coping mechanisms for dealing with burnout. High-sugar and high-fat foods can trigger dopamine release in the brain, which can provide comfort and relief from anxiety and stress. These foods are typically high in calories and low in nutrients.8

To cope with the emotional and physical toll of burnout, some people may turn to alcohol or other substances to numb emotional pain. Excessive alcohol consumption and substance misuse can lead to increased caloric intake, disrupted sleep patterns, and impaired decision-making regarding nutrition and exercise.

Sedentary Lifestyle

Burnout can sap an individual’s energy and motivation, making it challenging to maintain a consistent exercise routine or engage in regular physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle can further sap energy and motivation.

Sedentary behavior is any activity with an energy expenditure of 1.5 metabolic equivalents for tasks (MET) or less while sitting, reclining, or lying down.9 MET is a unit that estimates how much energy the body uses during that activity compared to resting metabolism.

A stressed woman sitting at a computer

Reduced Energy

When the demands on your time consistently exceed your mental and physical energy reserves, it can cause burnout and an increased risk of disease. There are many causes and contributors to low physical and psychological energy and several ways to increase energy.

Common causes of low energy include:

  • Prolonged feelings of burnout
  • Mental health conditions
  • Illnesses and disease
  • Poor consumption habits
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Relationship troubles

When partners enter a relationship, they each have expectations for how the relationship will unfold. Burnout can cause stress, depression, fatigue, and anxiety. These symptoms can contribute to unwanted weight gain and how you perceive yourself, which can impact your sex life.

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Increased Self-Criticism

Low self-esteem and negative self-talk can activate your body’s stress response. Excessive cortisol release over time can deplete your body’s energy stores, leading to burnout and exhaustion. Coping mechanisms such as stress eating and substance misuse can lower your motivation to exercise and take care of yourself.

Over time, negative self-talk patterns rewire the brain, making it difficult to manage these thoughts. The sooner you recognize burnout and its effects on your mental and physical health, the easier it is to reverse these changes.

Negative Effects on the Immune System

There is a strong relationship between burnout, stress, immune function, and weight gain. Chronic stress weakens the immune system and increases your risk of developing illnesses such as the common cold and flu.10

Cortisol, the stress hormone that can contribute to weight gain, suppresses immune function. When cortisol levels increase and remain high, they increase insulin release, which causes a drop in your blood sugar. You crave sugary, fatty foods to restore your energy stores. This leads to weight gain.

A woman who is stressed

How To Address Burnout

To reduce symptoms of burnout and their impact on your health, try to:

  • Incorporate regular practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or mindfulness-based activities to help regulate the stress response and lower cortisol levels.
  • Engage in leisure activities and hobbies that provide a sense of respite and rejuvenation.
  • Establish a regular sleep schedule and create a sleep-conducive environment to ensure adequate rest and recovery.
  • Limit exposure to blue light and stimulating activities before bedtime to promote better sleep quality.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol use before bedtime.
  • Plan time for socializing and engaging in hobbies.
  • Consult with your doctor to determine whether a medical condition or a nutritional deficiency is contributing to your burnout symptoms and weight gain. For example, vitamin B12 deficiency is associated with memory and concentration problems. Lipotropic nutrients can improve how your liver processes fat, which can lead to weight loss. Lipotropic B12 is a prescription medication that combines lipotropic compounds (methionine, inositol, and choline) with vitamin B12.

How To Address Weight Gain

In addition to managing stress and aiming for 7 to 9 hours of high-quality sleep each night, strategies to help address unwanted weight gain include:

  • Strength training: Whether you prefer bodyweight exercises or weight-lifting, strength training increases your muscle mass and baseline metabolic rate.
  • Aerobic exercise: Running, walking, swimming, rowing, and other similar exercises improve your cardiovascular function and burn excess calories.
  • Eat mindfully: Consume a nutritious, whole food-based diet. Pay attention to cues from your body that indicate hunger and satiety. Avoid using emotional and binge eating behaviors to reduce stress.
  • Limit excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Medical intervention: If you meet the BMI criteria for prescription weight-loss medication (BMI of 30 or greater or a BMI of 27 or greater and a medical condition made worse by obesity) and are interested in semaglutide, a prescription weight-loss medication, talk with an Invigor Medical treatment specialist to get started on a plan.
Author: Leann Poston, M.D.
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Sources

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