DEAR DOCTOR K:
I eat whenever I’m stressed out — and I always reach for the sweet stuff. Why does stress have this effect on me? How can I fight the urge?
You’re not alone. Ongoing stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push many people toward overeating.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. But if stress persists, it’s a different story. In times of stress, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol that increases appetite. It may also ramp up motivation in general — including the motivation to eat. 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.
Stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies (many of them in animals) have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible.
Other research suggests that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a role. Ghrelin is made in the stomach, after it has not been stretched by food for several hours. The hormone travels through the blood to the brain, where it signals that you need to eat something.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a positive feedback effect. They inhibit activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress. In a sense, these foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress. This may explain why you reach for particular foods when you are feeling stressed. And why I do, too.
How to fight the urge? The first step is obvious: Get rid of the high-fat, sugary foods in your kitchen. Keeping those foods handy is just inviting trouble.
But it is just as important, if not more so, to counter the stress that causes your cravings. Here are some suggestions:
- MEDITATE. Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress. It may also help you become more mindful of food choices. With practice, you may be able to pay better attention to the impulse to grab certain comfort foods and inhibit that impulse.
- EXERCISE. Low-intensity exercise seems to reduce levels of cortisol, and that should help decrease appetite. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation.
- SEEK SOCIAL SUPPORT. Friends, family and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience. Seek them out when stress starts to build.
I remember a patient who had several co-workers whom she found difficult. She was eating a lot of junk food and gaining weight. I advised her to walk for one hour every morning. She lost 40 pounds over the first year. “It wasn’t that the exercise burned it off,” she said. “The exercise chilled me out: They just didn’t bug me anymore.”