I have been talking and writing about emotional eating for as long as I have been a dietitian! But, I must admit it is the first time I really leave and breath stress every day in the extent that I sometimes feel I can’t handle it any longer…In my pursuit of a less stressful life I read and try a number of things above and beyond nutrition.
When we feel sad/anxious/angry, our bodies come under a certain degree of stress. In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys to pump out the hormone Adrenaline. Adrenaline helps trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists, it’s a problem! The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, this increases appetite and we are motivated to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall but in situations where stress lingers, cortisol levels remain elevated and over eating or comfort eating can start. Research shows that high cortisol levels can affect food preference. Sweet and starchy foods seem to have a dampening effect on stress-related responses and increase levels of serotonin. These foods really are ‘comfort’ foods in that they seem to counteract stress, and this may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods. When we eat tasty food, we get also get a dose of dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure. Serotonin is our natural mood regulator which makes us feel emotionally stable, less anxious and more energetic. It is also nature's own appetite suppressant. This powerful brain chemical curbs cravings and shuts off appetite. It makes you feel satisfied even if your stomach is not full. The result is eating less and losing weight so keeping serotonin levels balanced (without turning to sweet, starchy treats) is important. However, serotonin can be made only after carbohydrates are eaten! It's about finding the right foods (the right carbohydrates) which optimize the production of serotonin but aren't super sugary or processed. Remember that vegetables are carbohydrates too!
WHY DOES STRESS LEAD TO WEIGHT GAIN?
Stress can significantly impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight. It can also prevent you from losing weight. Researchers have long known that rises in levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can lead to weight gain. Every time you're stressed, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose is released into the bloodstream. This is a physical reaction to a situation your body deems as dangerous or risky - it’s entering fight/flight mode. Once the ‘threat’ (ie. the situation causing stress) has subsided, the adrenaline wears off and your blood sugar spike drops. This is when cortisol kicks into gear to replenish your energy supply quickly. Our bodies will often crave sugar at this point as it’s a substance that can provide energy almost immediately. The downside to consuming sugar is that your body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations. This energy is stored mainly in the form of abdominal fat, which can be particularly hard to shed. And so the vicious cycle starts: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave more sugar, eat more sugar, gain more weight. Even if you aren't eating foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol also slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight. Stressful periods also induce unhealthy habits. We'll often snack on unhealthy foods, eat fast foods/take outs because it’s easy and convenient and less trouble than preparing a healthy meal, exercise less, skip meals and sleep less because we have lots on our mind. Being tired from lack of sleep tends to make us eat more and our metabolism also gets slower. Chronic high cortisol can lead to low cortisol which can affect Thyroid which can lead to weight gain.
Stress busting ideas!
Being stressed can make us turn to sugary foods or alcohol. The brain gets a hit of dopamine when we consume things like cake and chocolate and for some time we can feel better. But often this develops into a vicious circle leading to weight gain. There are other options though and although getting into a new habit isn’t always easy, once you have switched the way your brain seeks reward (through dopamine), it becomes easier to stick to: 🏃🏽♀️ Exercise - as we move and blood flow increases around our body, endorphins are released and almost instantly we feel better. Over time, regular exercise is proven to lower stress and anxiety. Even going for a brisk walk or cycle is enough to have a positive effect. In my case strength training, running, yoga, cycling will do the job!! 🧘🏽♀️ Meditation/Yoga - When we give ourselves the space to just be in the present and to breathe properly, we move ourselves from fight/flight mode to a slower, steady state. Lots happens in the brain but one of the biggest changes seen when we mediate regularly is that the amygdala (the part of the brain which is responsible for feelings of anxiety and stress) gets smaller meaning there’s less space for these kinds of feelings. Mental and physical stress cause increased levels of cortisol which can release cytokines. In turn, these can cause problems with sleep, increase anxiety, blood pressure and fatigue. Research has also shown that meditation may also improve symptoms of stress-related conditions like IBS PTSD and fibromyalgia. I think about meditation as a form of praying and I have discovered that praying and breathing is what works for me. 🎵 Listen to music. The human brain and nervous system are hard-wired to distinguish music from noise and to respond. The cerebellum processes rhythm and the frontal lobes interpret the emotional content of music. Music that's powerful enough to be 'spine-tingling' can light up the brain's reward Centre much like chocolate and alcohol. 🥰 Call a friend. There’s truth in the old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Talking allows us to make sense of problems and get a different perspective. In all honesty I am not much of a caller but I do share my thoughts with some people.
Finding multiple ways to lower your stress levels is key. Interestingly, some foods have properties that seem to relieve stress so here are some ideas of things that you can include in your regular diet: 1. Matcha tea 🍵 Matcha is made from leaves that grow in the shade thus increasing levels of amino acid L-theanine which, if high enough, can reduce stress. 2. Swiss chard, kale and spinach - a leafy green veg which is packed full of magnesium. Low levels of magnesium are associated with anxiety. 3. Kimchi - always one you’ll hear me talk about! Kimchi is packed full of good bacteria, high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and great for the gut. A healthy gut is proven to help reduce anxiety and stress. 4. Nuts - an excellent source of B vitamins which are essential for the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin which regulate mood and control stress. 5. Eggs 🥚Whole eggs are particularly rich in choline, a nutrient which plays an important role in liver function, healthy brain development, muscle movement, your nervous system and metabolism. Optimal levels can help stress response. 6. Tofou. Rich in taurine and other amino acids which produce neurotransmitters like dopamine, shellfish is also loaded with B12, zinc, manganese and selenium, all of which help boost mood. 7. Chia seeds, avocado, pumpkin seeds, and hemp seeds are incredibly rich in omega-3 fats and vitamin D which are shown to help reduce stress and boost mood. Low levels of these nutrients have been linked to increased anxiety and depression. 8. Garlic 🧄 Garlic is high in Sulphur compounds which increase levels of Glutathione, an antioxidant which combats free radicals. 9. Tahini - this is made from sesame seeds and is rich in amino acid L-tryptophan. L-tryptophan is a precursor of the mood-regulating neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. 10. Chamomile tea - Chamomile is a medicinal herb which has been used for centuries to reduce stress and promote good sleep. Why not try replacing some of your usual teas/coffees with this and see how you feel. 11. Sunflower seeds - rich in vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, zinc and B vits which are essential for good mental health.