Unless you’re living in sunny California or a few other choice spots around the country, you have probably been stressed by the snowy, icy roads this winter.
I’ll bet at one time or another we’ve all felt that sudden jolt of adrenaline that shoots through your veins when you lose control of the car as it skids sideways on a patch of ice. As you realize what just happened, your hands begin to shake and your nerves feel frazzled.
Sudden danger triggers the brain to activate the body’s release of a hormone called cortisol, which gets you ready for a life-saving response. The release of cortisol makes your heart race and you’re on high alert, as your blood vessels constrict to divert the flow of blood from less immediate processes like digestion in favor of the brain and muscles to kick your fast-acting response in gear.
Once the danger has passed, the stress response normally shuts itself off. But the body reacts differently to chronic stress. Researchers from the University of California learned that when stress continues, the system doesn’t turn off. Instead, we keep ramping up the production of cortisol. They describe the condition as an inner Code Red. The body is in a constant state of anxiety, vigilance, and hyper-alertness, and depression often develops as a result.
Here is where stress eating comes in: If this situation were to continue, the chronic stress would deplete our energy reserves and we wouldn’t survive. Instead, our desire to reach for fat and sugar-laden foods actually helps the body build its reserves to live.
This starts the cycle of metabolic syndrome, with the tell-tale sign of a big belly. When the body responds to high levels of cortisol by depositing fat to the abdomen, it is getting ready for more stress. The belly fat is situated next to the liver, making it easier for the liver to use it for more energy.
“These fat deposits signal the brain to shut off the stress response,” says Norman Pecoraro, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow on the San Francisco research team. “Eating (rich food) seems to ameliorate some of the symptoms of depression, so you won’t feel as anxious. This seems to be the body’s way of telling the brain, ‘It’s okay, you can relax. You’re refueled with high-energy food.’”
Unfortunately, the cravings for sweets, fats and salt that help us in the short term are dangerous for our long-term health. These foods not only contribute to obesity, but can also lead to major health problems like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, liver and gall bladder disease and cancer.
Overeating to cope with chronic stress often becomes a vicious cycle. It’s perfectly natural and we managed just fine 10,000 years ago when we reached for the richest foods to supply us with energy. But today, easy access to an abundance of chemical-laden foods rich in fat, salt and sugar simply give us too much of a good thing.
What started as a stress response can expand until we habitually grab a gooey dessert or salty chips as a way to suppress boredom, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness or other unpleasant feelings, otherwise known as chronic stress eating.
“The oral sensation of eating delicious food cuts off all other brain circuits, so pleasure overwhelms every other sensation,” says David Kessler, MD, author of The End of Overeating. But, as Kessler points out, “The moment you stop eating, you feel all the old emotions again.”
Weight gain itself can then become a stressor. So, how does one jump off the vicious cycle? First, think about what you are hungry for in your life.
Do you need more sweetness in your relationships?
Do you crave more love and affection?
Is your job too stressful?
What serves or drains you?
Do you feel you need extra protection?
The willingness to make important changes in your life could be the difference between health and disease.
You might want to get some help if the idea of making a change is too overwhelming. A coach or counselor trained in behavioral change can give you the techniques and ongoing support to take action, whether it’s about sensitivity, weight loss, relationships or career.
Small changes add up too. If you plan to have healthy snacks like crunchy apples or trail mix (without the candy) on hand, you can easily grab a healthy alternative to the candy bar. Eating a healthy snack that includes protein every few hours also helps you avoid binge-eating by keeping your blood sugar steady.
Some foods are better than others at relieving stress, like fresh fruits from berries to bananas. Almost all nuts are helpful in replacing stress-depleted B vitamins (walnuts) and giving you a good dose of selenium and zinc (Brazil nuts), which are also drained by anxiety.
Meanwhile, if you feel trapped by cravings, you might begin to think of them as a tool for self-awareness—each craving can show you where you are dissatisfied. And once you begin to look inside, you can open the window to what you really want in life.