Do you tend to reach for sweet or salty food when you’re stressed?
Have you ever wondered why? Well you’re probably thinking “Duh! It tastes good, that’s why!” You’re not wrong there, but there are other reasons and it’s to do with what’s happening in the body when we experience stress.
What is stress?
Stress is often described as a feeling of being overloaded, would-up, tight, tense and worried. We all experience stress at times. Sometimes stress helps motivate us to get a task finished, or perform well. But stress can also be harmful if we become over-stressed and it starts to impact our normal life for too long.
What are the signs of stress?
When we experience stress, our bodies respond by releasing hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones creative physical changes in the body which help us to react quickly and effectively to work our way through the stressful situation. This is sometimes called the ‘fight or flight’ response.
While these physical changes help us to try and rise to the challenges of the stressful situation, they can cause other physical and psychological symptoms if the stress is ongoing and the physical changes do not subside.
These symptoms can include:
Headaches, other aches and pains
Sleep disturbances, insomnia
Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea
Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
Feeling moody, tearful
Low self-esteem, lack of confidence
High blood pressure
Weakened immune system
How does stress effect eating and weight gain?
When we are chronically stressed, we tend to crave ‘comfort foods’, such as a bag of potato chips or a tub of ice cream. We crave these foods for both biological and psychological reasons. The stress hormone, cortisol, stimulates appetite causing us to crave foods high in fat and sugar that typically cause us to gain weight. However, the effect of eating these calorie dense foods can also have a pleasurable or calming effect on the brain which can influence our brain’s reward system and strengthen the desire or urge to continue reaching for those foods when we experience stress or other unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety. Thus, eating ‘comfort foods’ can become a way of coping with these difficult experiences.
To add insult to injury, if we’re also experiencing sleep disturbances and fatigue from chronic stress, this can also influence weight gain. Lack of sleep and weight gain has been linked to two hormones – ghrelin and leptin. Evidence indicates lack of sleep may disrupt the functioning of these two hormones by increasing ghrelin and reducing leptin. Ghrelin lets us know when to eat and leptin tells us when to stop eating. Thus, with more ghrelin we may have an increased desire to eat and reduced leptin may then limit our ability to stop eating when we have had enough.
What can I do about it?
There are several ways we can lessen the effect of stress on eating and weight gain, starting with finding more adaptive ways of managing stress. Relaxation is great place to start however exercise is also a great stress buster, and has the obvious physical benefits. Another way to better manage stress and becoming more conscious of your eating is by learning Mindfulness skills. Mindfulness teaches us to slow down and tune into the sensory experience of food, including its sight, texture, taste or smell. It can also teach us to tune into our subjective feelings of hunger or fullness.
If you would like to learn more about stress management, effective coping or mindfulness skills you can arrange an appointment with AARI health arena’s new Psychologist, Sam.
Australian Psychological Society (2012). Understanding and managing stress.
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