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Can stress from noise make you gain weight?

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Can stress make you gain weight?  Not too long ago that would have been considered a funny question. Weight gain, you would have known for fact, is caused by eating too much and exercising too little.  These things are certainly important, but research indicates that is not the entire story.  There are other factors. Research indicates stress, including stress from such simple things as noise, can play a role in weight gain.

Can stress make you gain weight?

Surely there are many factors involved in the current obesity epidemic.  I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of people blame the loss of recess and gym class in schools, the supersized drinks, and the easy availability of junk food,  There is also the lack of time needed to plan, shop for, and prepare the healthy, home-cooked meals that some of us stealthily passed to the dog under the table during our childhoods.  Unwanted vegetables, I recall, were stashed in pockets.  But why are so many people struggling today with body weight?  If you stop to think about it, our bodies do an amazing job of maintaining body weight.  Our weight doesn’t, unless something is really wrong, seesaw all over the place.  When we do gain weight, it tends to move gradually upwards, and then is hard to take off.  This is due to complex interactions of hormones, which we do not completely understand.  Note here: what we don’t know about the regulation of our own bodies could fill a barn. Somewhere out there is the answer to the question how can stress make you gain weight.

How stress can make you gain weight

When a person experiences long-term stress the body adapts by increasing levels of cortisol.  Cortisol does a number of things.  Cortisol elevates blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and breaks down muscle to use it for fuel.  Fat, tends to build up, especially around the waist.  This is a very simplified nut-shell explanation.   For an excellent and enjoyable discussion check out this video featuring stress researcher Robert Sapolsky.

Contemporary life is full of stressors.  This can include things we think we have completely tuned out, like noise. Living in an area with heavy traffic noise has been associated with cardiovascular disease.  It has also been associated with metabolic disorders and sleep problems.   Noise as a factor in body fat was studied by a group of Danish researchers.  They had a cohort of over 57,000 people.  This is a lot of people, which makes the study a lot more powerful than studies that look at small numbers of people.   The results of the study found that people in areas with noise levels of 60+ decibels had larger waists and higher BMI than people living in quiet areas (20 or fewer decibels of noise).   Researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors, history of smoking, level of physical activity and exposure to air pollution which are also associated with body weight and metabolic disorders.

Can stress make you gain weight?  Maybe.  Can noise make you gain weight?

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This study indicates that people living with noise have bigger waists and are heavier, as a whole, than people whose homes were quiet.     What makes for a noisy home?  The researchers were particularly interested in noise from traffic and railroads.  The cutoff for “noisy” was 60 decibels.  This is not considered all that loud.  Background conversation in a restaurant will clock in at about 60 decibels.   Being a hundred feet from an air conditioner can too.  Driving in a car, presumably with the windows shut will be around 70 decibels and conversation at home is normally around 50.  To get into the quiet category (20 decibels or less) your average background noise would consist of gently rustling leaves and whispering.

Things to consider for the can stress make you gain weight question

Reducing stress in your life, including extra noise, may help you improve your health and make losing weight easier.  However, not everyone responds to stress, including the stress of noise, in the same way.  Some people find quiet very stressful.  Some noise can be soothing.  Tweeting birds and babbling brooks make noise too.

Christensen JS, Raaschou-Nielsen O, Tjønneland A, Overvad K, Nordsborg RB, Ketzel M, Sørensen TI, & Sørensen M (2015). Road Traffic and Railway Noise Exposures and Adiposity in Adults: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Cohort. Environmental health perspectives PMID: 26241990