Raise your hand if you reach for fatty, sugary foods to comfort you when you’re feeling stressed or to provide a reward at the end of a hard day. Don’t feel bad; it’s a common problem. Even the most disciplined among us does it. It might help to know that stress-related hormones are partly to blame. As you’re coming down from a stressful event, your brain chemicals actually stimulate your appetite for french fries and ice cream. Well, maybe not those two foods exactly, but ones like them. On top of that, those same brain chemicals dampen your sense of portion control, which means unhealthy choices in oversize amounts.
Because our lives contain inevitable stressors, you will never completely turn off stress-related chemicals. But what you eat on a daily basis can help reduce the impact of those chemicals, allowing you in turn to make more nutritious food choices and give your body the real treat of calming, nutrient-rich meals. First, though, you should understand what happens to your appetite when you get stressed.
Stress and Hunger
While many people believe that they eat more when stressed, the truth is that in the middle of a stressful event, your appetite is low. Adrenaline turns off any “nonemergency” bodily processes, like digestion. Your body decreases the production of insulin (the chemical that helps your cells store fatty acids, the carbohydrate glycogen, and protein) and instead, hormones tell cells to produce glucose, quickly. This simple sugar fuels muscles in the classic fight-or-flight response, your body’s preparation to deliver a burst of energy in response to a threat.
After the stressful event is over, though, your energy-producing cycle goes into reverse. Hormones circulating in your bloodstream tell your brain to gather and store calories for the next emergency. Your appetite awakens. Residual cortisol (the “stress hormone”) circulating in your body triggers the release of neuropeptide Y, a neurotransmitter that whets your appetite for sweet, buttery foods. And ironically, disciplined eaters are even more apt to grab treats as a coping mechanism at this point. Plus, the cortisol makes your brain less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that lets you know you are full. As a consequence, you eat more.
As if sparking your appetite and dampening your ability to feel full weren’t enough, cortisol also pushes your body to store energy — in the form of fat — one other way. Cortisol encourages the production of fat cells that are stored as visceral fat, the fat around your belly — which is the fat that puts people at higher risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease.
Food as Stress Medicine
It seems as if after a stressful event, your body tells you, You ran from a lion; eat lots of rich food to prepare for next time. But you also know that responding this way is a recipe for weight gain. So the key is to let your mind rule your body, consciously choosing to fuel yourself through crises in a healthy fashion.
A key part of the plan: Don’t skip meals. Regular nutrition keeps your blood sugar up, subduing the roller coaster — the feeling of not being hungry and then later feeling famished — induced by the stress response.
Foods for Chronic Stress
If you are facing significant, chronic stress, you may be amazed at the healing power of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. These include salmon, albacore tuna, walnuts and flaxseed — even fish oil supplements. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the volume of cortisol that your body produces..
In addition, foods high in folic acid, such as leafy greens, and foods high in vitamin B12, such as lean animal protein, can help regulate your mood and increase performance, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. Folic acid makes dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, while B12 helps form GABA, a neurotransmitter that may help calm you down.
As far as caffeine goes, it can help improve concentration, but too much caffeine can result in a poor night’s sleep, which will only increase your stress. The same goes for alcohol: While it may help relax you when you’re stressed, the fitful night of sleep that will result will just equal more stress. So go easy on both caffeine and alcohol.