People who fail to lose weight, routinely name stress as one of the greatest obstacles they face when trying to diet and eat more healthily. As a health counselor, I’ve heard it a thousand times: When I’m stressed out, I almost automatically reach for food. I can’t resist, I just need something to help me cope.
Chronically Elevated Stress Hormones
Can Contribute to Weight Gain
Excessive snacking and overeating are common responses to stress. When feelings of anxiety and discomfort persist, food can offer much needed relief – especially the kind we call ‘comfort food.’ Scientists believe, however, that there is more to the stress-food connection than a simple inability to stay away from the munchies.
Stress itself is not necessarily the problem. In fact, experiencing stress is a natural response without which we would not have survived as a species for long. Stress is our body’s way to protect us from danger. In emergency situations, the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol allow us to focus better, react faster and work harder than we normally would be able to. In extreme cases, stress hormones can enable us to react almost without thinking as if on autopilot, a process also known as “fight-or-flight” response, which can be a lifesaver.
But these mechanisms are only designed to deal effectively with short-term events. If the perception of danger continues unabatedly, our own natural defenses can eventually turn against us. Especially in situations where neither fight nor flight responses are possible, enduring continuously high levels of stress can cause serious damage to our physical and mental well-being in multiple ways. Over time, this can lead to a dangerous form of chronic stress, a condition so widespread and so severe, it has become one of the greatest health threats of our time.
“Stress can mean facing each day ravenously hungry, adding weight gain to [people’s] list of worries,” says Dr. Elissa Epel, a professor of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “While the immediate response to acute stress can be a temporary loss of appetite, […] for some people, chronic stress can be tied to an increase in appetite and stress-induced weight gain. The problem,” she says, “lies within our neuroendocrine system, a brain-to-body connection that harkens to evolutionary times and which helped our distant ancestors to survive. This system still activates a series of hormones whenever we feel threatened.”
For instance, the stress hormone, cortisol, is responsible for replenishing the body with nutrients even after the stress-inducing causes have passed. As cortisol levels rise, our appetite for food increases. While the hormone itself does not make fat, chronically elevated cortisol levels can have a variety of negative health effects, including a decrease in insulin sensitivity, growing insulin resistance, reduced kidney function, hypertension and weakening of the immune system.
“The fuel our muscles need during fight or flight is sugar – one reason we crave carbohydrates when we are stressed,” says Dr. Riccardo Perfetti, an endocrinologist and director of the outpatient diabetes program at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “To move the sugar from our blood to our muscles requires insulin, the hormone that opens the gates to the cells and lets the sugar in. And high levels of sugar and insulin set the stage for the body to store fat,” he explains.
To better control these negative effects from stress responses, experts recommend regular exercise, not only to burn calories but also to enhance the body’s production of biochemicals that can counterbalance the concentration of stress hormones.
In times of heightened stress, the worst thing people can do is “sit and stew in frustration and anger without expending any of the calories or food stores that would be used in a physical fight out of stress or danger,” says Dr. Shawn Talbott, professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Utah and author of “The Cortisol Connection.”
The best de-stressors are eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient amounts of sleep, taking breaks for relaxation and rejuvenation, avoiding stimulants like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol, and spending time with supportive family members and friends.