Have you ever noticed how stress makes you hungry? Stress may contribute to changes in dietary behaviors that lead to weight gain. Stress has become a way of life in the 21st century where healthy eating habits are hard to practice for people under stress.
For some people, the effects of stress go beyond feelings of anxiety and discomfort. For them, stress can mean uncontrolled eating and adding weight gain to their list of worries. Weight gain when under stress may also be due to the body’s system of hormonal checks and balances, which can actually promote weight gain when you’re stressed out, according to some researchers.
Psycho-social stress has been implicated as a risk factor for obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other health risks.
How Does Stress Work?
The stress response is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. Once the nervous system perceives an increase in demand or threat, it triggers a general sympathetic activation as well as adrenal gland activation. When stress reaches chronic and harmful levels, deleterious consequences follow, from compromised immune function to weight gain to developmental impairment. Under stress, cortisol, the primary hormone responsible for the stress response is released.1
Despite regular exercise and a balanced diet, chronic stress can not only prevent weight loss, but also increase weight. Stress causes us to indulge in food. In a specific study, psycho-social stress, anxiety and depression were associated with weight gain among men and women with higher body mass indexes. Awareness about this connection can help obese patients avoid gaining further weight during stressful periods.2
Fatty and sugary foods are usually the first options since most people love them. Research shows that as a stress-coping behavior, women are more likely indulge in food while men indulge in alcohol or smoking. 3
Cortisol Or Stress Hormone
When stress is chronic, it leads to high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is a critical hormone with many actions in the body. The levels of cortisol in the bloodstream vary depending upon the time of day (normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight). Being an adrenal steroid hormone, cortisol regulates adaptive responses to different types of stress. It hugely impacts appetite control, meal frequency, and regulation. Increases in cortisol concentration may also lead to an increase in appetite and food intake. On the other hand, low cortisol concentration results in hypophagia and possibly decreased energy intake. Eating frequent and smaller meals comprising moderate protein levels and lower fat, obtaining normal sleep of 8 hours a day, and controlling stressors and levels of psychological stress could more readily control the levels of appetite hormones.4
Chronic stress and cortisol can contribute to weight gain in the following ways:
Too much cortisol can slow your metabolism, causing more weight gain than you would normally experience. This also makes dieting more difficult. Eating slowly, savoring each bite, and focusing on the health aspect of the food may reduce cortisol levels. This, in turn, decreases the amount of food we eat, improves metabolism and prevents fat accumulation.
Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods. Foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief. While this brings temporary relief, it piles on the pounds, especially around the mid-section. A little restraint can go a long way here. It is important to ensure that we don’t indulge. Whatever your food craving is, keep it at a minimum.
Excessive stress even affects where we tend to store fat. Additionally:
- Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat.
- In times of stress, cortisol can collect fat from the blood and other storage places in the body and move it to the belly.
- Cortisol can also increase the size of individual fat cells.
- Abdominal fat is linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body.
Ayurvedic Solutions For Stress-Eating
Ayurveda recommends eating your main meal around noon when the sun is directly overhead. This makes digestion and assimilation of nourishing food easier. In addition:
- Eat only when really hungry.
- Eat sitting down rather than standing up.
- Eat in a quiet peaceful environment – or at least eat quietly.
- Eat about the same time every day.
- Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly.
- Avoid eating when rushed, angry or upset.
- Eat with a sense of gratitude and celebration of life’s many blessings.
- Sit for at least 5-10 minutes after completing the meal before resuming your activities.
Suggestions To Counter Stress
Studies show that meditation reduces stress. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to control the impulse to eat mindlessly – and will learn to identify these feelings, accept the unpleasant ones and fight the automatic urge to reach for a snack.
Intense exercises increase cortisol levels temporarily, but low-intensity exercise seems to reduce them. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation. Exercise is an effective method to bring down cortisol levels and is also an instant stress reliever. It makes the body think that you’re avoiding the source of the stress. Exercise improves blood circulation and quickly transports the cortisol to the kidneys, which then flushes it out of the body.
Some foods are just naturally more supportive of good health. A healthy diet for stress relief and carefully chosen stress relief foods can help us feel better.
Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a positive effect on stress that people experience.7
|↑1||Randall, Michael. “The physiology of stress: Cortisol and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.” DUJS Online–The Darmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Fall (2010).|
|↑2||Block, Jason P., Yulei He, Alan M. Zaslavsky, Lin Ding, and John Z. Ayanian. “Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults.” American journal of epidemiology (2009): kwp104.|
|↑3||Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Health Publications. 2012.|
|↑4||Schwarz, Neil A., B. Rhett Rigby, Paul La Bounty, Brian Shelmadine, and Rodney G. Bowden. “A review of weight control strategies and their effects on the regulation of hormonal balance.” Journal of nutrition and metabolism 2011 (2011).|
|↑5||Torres, Susan J., and Caryl A. Nowson. “Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity.” Nutrition 23.11 (2007): 887-894.|
|↑6||Emotional Eating, HelpGuide.Org|
|↑7||Why Stress Causes People To Overeat, Harvard Health Publications|