Stress affects us all at some point or another, whether it is from deadlines, work, weddings, relationships or even that never-ending to-do list. As a result, our eating habits can change and sometimes, even eating can make us stressed.
But what even is STRESS?
Stress itself is primarily a physical response. When we are stressed, our body believes it is ‘under attack’ and switches to what we know as fight of flight mode. This in turn, releases hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, which prepare our body for the so called physical action. But in simple terms stress is a feeling when under abnormal pressure; sometimes stress is a good thing as it makes us perform better, but long periods of stress can lead to strain on your body, mood and behaviour.
The science behind stress
When our body releases these hormones, this causes reactions in our bodies; blood pressure and heart rate increases, more fat and sugars are released in the system to aid in increased energy. These reactions happen so you can “fight or flight”. However, in most situations this is not the case, and the chemicals do not get used up by the body, therefore they build up and can cause headaches, nausea and indigestion, and in the long term can increase risk of heart attacks and depression.
But how does this all link to eating?
When we are stressed, we often reach for food, and the likelihood is that we either over eat, or on the flip side; under eat.
Cracking down on cortisol
In the short term, stress can lead to a loss of appetite which is signalled by a corticotrophin-releasing hormone. But most of the time, when stressed we often feel hungry; which is due to your adrenal glands secreting cortisol, which increases appetite.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, which is produced within the adrenal gland. As stated earlier it is released in response to stress, but also low blood-glucose. Therefore, Cortisol increases blood sugar through gluconeogenesis (making new glucose)
A lot of the time, we are not actually hungry when stress eating, and instead we may be trying to avoid the pain and seek relief, by eating. Food can make people happy, hence they reach for it when stressed. This is one theory and of course there are lots of different explanations but I commonly see emotional eating in my Harley Street clinic.
Bad food sad mood
Stress also can affect food preferences. When we are stressed, it is so easy to reach for junk food full of high levels of sugar and fat. Dopamine is part of the reward system that leaves you wanting or craving something. Research has shown that high fats in the diet can dull the brain’s dopamine system. Therefore, to get the same ‘rewarding’ experience, you consume more to achieve the pleasure.
But like everyone who has eaten when stressed (who hasn’t), we all know the feeling after – research has shown that eating these foods can make your mood even worse!
Stressed = Desserts
Due to the increased secretion of Cortisol when stressed, this may lead to high insulin levels, and as a result when the blood sugar drops, sugary, fatty foods are craved. This in turn, can lead to weight gain, as the more stressed we are, the more we reach for food. It should be noted that being stressed, can also lead to increased consumption of alcohol, decreased exercise because of little time, all can impact weight gain. Stress eating can also become an ingrained habit, it has been shown that we reach for high sugar foods because it reduces the stress-induced cortisol responses; but our brain can start to rely on these foods to cope with stress.
3 ways to stall stress eating
- Exercise: When participating in exercise, we produce endorphins; the brain’s natural painkiller, which helps reduce stress, and improve sleep ability.
- Social Support: We forget that talking is a natural remedy. While it is often hard to talk about difficulties in our lives, opening up makes us realise that lots of people have the same stressful situations and working through them together can help, instead of eating your sorrows away.
- Meditation: It allows time of mindfulness, and this can link to eating as you become more aware of what you are eating, and what is does to your body. After time, meditation reduces stress as you pay better attention to impulse decisions both food and non-food related.
Stressed eating can happen from time to time, but that should be it. You’re not the only one to reach for that tub of Ben and Jerry’s instead of completing that assignment, but in hindsight, that ice cream isn’t going to fix the real situation, only the short term one. Remember, stress isn’t always a bad thing, it keeps us on our toes, but there are always ways to cope with it and people to turn to.
Rhiannon Lambert BSc MSc ANutr @rhitrition