Week Five: Connecting the Dots Between Stress and Eating Disorders

Stress is a common phenomenon of our times. Most stress experiences, by far, are work-related. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a government agency that conducts studies in work-related illnesses and injuries, more than 25% of workers identify their jobs as the main source of their stress. A whopping 75% believe that their work environment is more stressful than it was for their parents’ generation. Stress from work is cited as a factor for the occurrence of multiple health problems – more than financial issues, family concerns, etc. (See detailed study at www.cdc.gov/niosh/stresswk.html)

Connecting the dots between stress and eating disorders
Of course, not all stress is bad. Stress can be a powerful motivating and inspiring force. Some folks actually thrive under a certain amount of stress. First responders, military personnel, medical emergency professionals and the likes typically perform very well under pressure, perhaps even enjoy it.

This phenomenon is called “acute” stress. Humans are well designed to cope quickly and efficiently with acute stressors. Our bodies are able to mobilize normally untapped resources in situations of immediate danger. This is appropriate and healthy if it occurs only sporadically and doesn’t last long. Historically speaking, the ability to mount so-called “fight or flight” responses within split-seconds has been an important genetic ingredient for our very survival.

However, in the modern world, hardly any of us are forced to do battle with wild beasts any more. Our problem is that we have plenty of new stressors to fight off, most of which we are less prepared for. These are of a more permanent kind, also known as “chronic.” Chronic stressors are perceived threats that won’t go away. Typical examples are abusive workplaces, financial problems, domestic violence and the likes. Unlike acute stressors, which allow for some relief once a particular threat has passed, chronically stressful situations keep us permanently in a state of heightened alertness and tension.

Long-term suffering from chronic stress can eventually lead to a number of negative health effects, such as anxiety disorders, anger and depression, which in turn may contribute to eating disorders, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer Disease.

In fact, continuing high levels of stress are potentially responsible for a vast array of debilitating damages to our psychological and physical well-being. For instance, chronic stress exposes our bodies to certain hormones, like cortisol, which can lead to a number of negative effects. While more research needs to be done on the hormonal impact of chronic stress, we can say with certainty that prolonged stress-related suffering is likely to cause serious harm or accelerate existing damages to our health in numerous ways. It potentially weakens our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to a variety of diseases, both of the mind and the body. It diminishes the quality of our lives and can significantly shorten our life expectancy.

Stress as a major cause for eating disorders and obesity
A great number of studies have been conducted to shed light on potential links between stress and eating disorders. Not surprisingly, there are strong indications that stress can significantly influence lifestyle choices and eating habits.

When coping with acutely stressful situations, our bodies use up nutrients much faster than when we are relaxed and at ease. While stress increases the need for fuel consumption, it simultaneously depresses the ability to absorb nutrients because normal digestive functions are largely suspended. If the digestive system remains in a stress-induced state of impairment for too long, it can give cause to serious malnutrition.

To protect us from starvation, our brains are programmed to respond to energy depletion by sending emergency signals, begging for more food supplies. The longer the stress experience lasts the louder the alarm bells ring.

The warning signs are not the only tools the brain can use to ensure that fuel supplies won’t dip too low. It is also designed to experience pleasure from eating food, known as “satiation.” Words like “soul food” or “comfort food” explicitly describe food consumption as something exceedingly pleasurable. That may help explain why eating food is a common response to stress. It provides a welcome sense of relief.

The pleasure responses can be especially intense with sweetfatty and salty foods. This is not by accident. For our distant ancestors who had to survive on what they hunted or gathered, getting their calorie needs met was a constant struggle. Foods with high calorie- and fat content were extremely desirable. Times have changed and our food supplies are now plentiful. Yet our appetite for sweet and fatty foods is still very much a part of our genetic make-up.

Sugar, fat and salt are actually quite hard to find in nature, but they are abundantly present in the processed foods and drinks we enjoy every day. We are meant to consume these ingredients rarely and only in small quantities – which, of course, is the exact opposite of what most of us do. What’s worse is that we are ill-equipped to protect ourselves against the constant exposure to these foods. Because most of our dietary preferences are genetically designed in favor of food sources with high calorie- and fat content, we find the seductive lures of smells and tastes that go with them almost irresistible. In particular, fast food items and the likes stimulate consumption and can be highly addictive. The disastrous consequences for our health are now painfully obvious. Diet- and lifestyle-related illnesses like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension have become hands down the leading killers in our society.

Counter-balancing stress-related eating disorders
There are many steps one can take toward effective stress management, including physical exercise, yoga, meditation, counseling and so forth. The guidelines presented here are limited to dietary measures.

Stress and eating disorders have a tendency to build on each other in form of a vicious cycle. Stressful situations can affect our behavior in ways we may not always fully appreciate.

So, here are a few random thoughts you should consider when the going gets tough the next time around. Instead of muddling through your stress with a “whatever-it-takes” attitude, take a little time for some TLC. Always begin your day with a nutritionally balanced breakfast. Include whole grains and fresh fruits for fiber and vitamins. Limit your caffeine intake. Coffee, tea and colas are all diuretics and can get you dehydrated. Avoid sports- and energy drinks. The side-effects offset most of the benefits they promise. Like sodas, they also make you overdose on sugar. Stay away from fast food, sweet pastries and other processed foods with high calorie-, fat- and salt content. Eat a wholesome lunch, including a generous serving of fresh vegetables. Don’t continue to work, e-mail or make phone calls while you’re eating. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Have a healthy snack, like a granola bar or some fruit to get through the afternoon slump. Go easy on cocktails and other alcoholic beverages before and with dinner. Switch off the TV, computer, video games, or whatever else can distract you and enjoy a sit-down, home-made dinner with your family. Focus on your meal and those you share it with.

And try to leave your stress behind for a while. It will be there for you whenever you want it back… Continue to Week Six »

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