Published on October 3, 2020
(c) Kakigori Fotosearch_k44128825
When stress strikes, do you find yourself unexpectedly craving something delicious and unhealthy?
Well, stress-eating isn’t just a myth. Science has shown that our bodies respond to stress by thinking we need energy — lots of energy — to fight whatever’s causing the anxious feeling. Because foods high in sugar or fat provide plenty of quick energy, that’s what we crave.
In the short-term, these foods can help calm us down. Once we eat them, they can help reduce the feelings of stress and related symptoms, as if they’re telling your body “Here’s the energy you need to deal with the problem.” For a short time, anyway.
Also in the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
If stress persists, however, the adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away — or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position — cortisol may stay elevated.
Also, food is very often used as a “numbing strategy.” It’s a distraction strategy in the same way that people might use alcohol or drugs or TV as ways to create a buffer between themselves and whatever difficult feelings they might be experiencing.
Of course, there are drawbacks to this biological response. First, it’s clear that eating high-fat, sugary foods on a regular basis is bad for your waistline as well as for your overall health. And second, the more you give in to your body’s cues to eat, the more likely you are to continue doing so in the future.
. . . and remember: Your diet affects your mental health as well as your physical appearance.
I previously mentioned that stress-eating makes us feel better in the short-term. Over time, however, a poor diet can cause you to feel even worse—a vicious cycle. So what can you do?
What you eat on a regular basis has an enormous impact on your well-being, just as sleep and exercise do. There’s no denying that it’s fine to have a bowl of ice cream or a big spoonful of peanut butter on occasion and as part of a well-balanced diet.
But if you constantly find yourself reaching for comfort foods, you’re feeding into an endless cycle, and you’re not dealing with the problem of what makes you stressed in the first place. A better method is to reduce the stress in your life as much as possible, and with professional help if necessary, and make small changes to your diet that will improve both your physical and mental health.