Latest Issue

Is Burnout Causing Your Weight Gain?

While estimates of the annual health care costs of obesity-related illnesses vary, researchers agree that the costs are astronomical. Some studies actually estimate the cost to be a staggering $190.2 billion, or nearly 21% of annual medical spending in the United States. Though the root causes for this epidemic can be complex, one that is rarely mentioned is burnout.

Moira Lawler, author for the Everyday Health newsletter, cites eight uncommon signs of burnout. This list includes pessimism, trouble sleeping, stomach or headaches, lowered immunity, weight gain, isolation, muscle pain, and using food, alcohol, or drugs. All of these behaviors can directly or indirectly result in weight gain.

Burnout can manifest in different ways depending upon the actual cause in the individual, writes Lawler. Some people may look exhausted, while others isolate themselves. Though burnout itself is not a diagnosis, behavioral scientists refer to burnout as the triad of cynicism, detachment, and lack of accomplishment. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as work-related stress. Burnout may result from a specific responsibility, such as caring for a child or aging parent or may be caused by an ever-increasing workload in a paid position. The outcome is the same, however, as work-related stress ultimately affects all aspects of life. The end result is that people will have a decreased sense of well-being and feel physically and mentally unwell.

People experiencing burnout may gain weight from things such as decreased activity and unhealthy eating habits. Other factors that may contribute in some way to weight gain are depression, irritability, disrupted sleeping patterns leading to daytime fatigue, and an increase in the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol deserves special mention and is a type of stress hormone that increases glucose in the bloodstream. In addition, cortisol enhances the use of glucose in the brain and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. While all these things are essential if you are fighting for your life, they will cause extreme wear and tear on your brain and body if experienced daily. Some signs of excess cortisol levels are fatigue, weight gain in the belly, mental fogginess, and muscle weakness.

In a 2019 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, Dr. Heather Padilla et al. proposed that workload and exhaustion were associated with physical activity behaviors that lead to weight gain. In the study, Padilla’s team evaluated the relationship between workload, exhaustion, and key behaviors for weight loss, such as nutrition and physical activity. Nine hundred fifty-three working adults were studied. The results showed that workload and exhaustion were closely related to behaviors such as uncontrolled eating and low-quality (junk) food. In addition, the study showed that as the workload increased, physical activity levels decreased.

Unhealthy behaviors stemming from burnout, such as overeating, being sedentary, unmanaged stress, and depression, can all significantly contribute to weight gain and need to be addressed when considering health interventions. Burnout symptoms can vary from person to person and, if left untreated, can have serious consequences both physically and mentally. In addition, the symptoms of burnout can also damage interpersonal relationships, lead to job loss, and ultimately affect all aspects of daily life. If you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms of burnout and are unable to manage them on your own, seek help professional help from your primary care provider or behavioral health professional.