Stress, Diet and Weight

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

What is stress?

Our central nervous system (CNS) is absolutely fascinating, it allows us to experience our existence of this world. However, the CNS has its limitations and chronic overstimulation on a daily basis may lead to undesirable consequences in some cases namely chronic stress.

So there we have it, there is no doubt stress is an important stimulus that keeps people going in their everyday lives yes? - many people thrive, and even depend on it at low levels, claiming they and are more productive isn't that true... So lets see, if we remove stress from our productivity, nothing will ever get done. People need some level of stress to prepare for things such as exams, working on projects, and living a healthier life.

Yet... if stress becomes chronic, the body reacts as if you’re running for your life in the jungle! Driven by the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the “fight or flight” system, and the body responds by producing high levels of the stress hormones - epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. Of course, this stress response is normal AND favourable, especially if a person needs the additional energy it provides to get moving - fast!

So being in a stressful situation everyday is good right?...wrong. As mentioned earlier, the physiological response to stress is natural and essential for the survival of our species.

Unfortunately, our 'new' lifestyle has altered this response, and many people are exposed this "temporary" stress for years!

Consequently, the stress hormones wreak havoc on our bodies, simulating the act of running away from a bear, but in this case, the chase lasts for several years or even decades.

Can stress make us overeat?

It's been another busy/hectic/crazy/frustrating day, not stopped all day right. On impulse, you grab a chocolate bar on the run intending to have a few bites, but before you know it, you've polished off the whole thing — feel better? Yup! - AND you're not alone.

Well here we go... the stress and the hormones unleashed and the effects of high-fat, sugary "comfort foods" and can push people toward overeating.

Effects on appetite

In the short term:

  • Stress releases an appetite suppressing hormone produced in the hypothalamus, located in brain called corticotropin.

  • The brain sends a message to the adrenal glands located at the top kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).

  • Epinephrine (adrenaline) trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, that puts eating on hold for a while.

Stress response

  • The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol

  • Cortisol increases appetite and 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

Consequence of chronic stress:

Stress, be that physical or emotional distress, has been studied closely and response has been shown to alter food preferences, such as increased intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.

High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels (produced in the presence of glucose), may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a "hunger hormone," may have a role. It has been observed that following a meal that is high in fat and sugar, inhibits activity in a parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. Almost suggesting that our craving for those foods at that time is like a cure to reduce the feeling of stress.

Other behaviours that stressed people typically display can also help to pile on the lbs is:

  • Poor sleeping

  • Less exercise

  • Drink more alcohol

Research findings

There have been research studies on stress that report a gender divide in the coping strategies of stress, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking.

Other research has shown that high stress levels lead to weight gain in both women and men, but the effect is typically greater in men.

Another research identified that weight gain was more prevalent in those that were overweight at the beginning of the study period. One explanation: overweight people have elevated insulin levels, and stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in the presence of high insulin.

Elevated levels of cortisol produced during a typical stress response that leads to weight gain, was studied several years ago by British researchers. Results of this fascinating study in a controlled environment, showed that the group exposed to a level of stress in response to typical daily hassle from normal life snack a great deal more than low-cortisol responders.

Stress reduction strategies

  • Meditation - Can help to reduce stress with regular practice, and may also help you be more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to focus more efficiently on other things which may help to reduce to the impulse to grab a fat and sugar loaded comfort food. Yoga practice often includes meditation and proven to help lower stress levels or improve the way we react to it.

  • Exercise - Intense exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily, but low-intensity exercise like yoga, pilates or resistance training seems to reduce them. Also, a study in 2010 reports that vigorous exercise may block some of the negative effects of stress.

  • Visit with friends - Social support certainly seems to have a buffering effect on the stress people experience. People that have a stressful carer have been shown to have better outcome in dealing with stress if they have support from their social circle compared to those who do not.

Contact us at Core Nutrition Specialists for more information on food, mind and body and out our blog page for lots more diet, health and wellbeing

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