Guest post by Lia Templeman
What Is Stress?
Stress is your bodies’ reaction to change that causes tension on the body. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Acute stress is short-lived. Being stuck in a traffic jam, or finding yourself in an intense argument with someone, or preparing for a job interview are examples of acute stress.
Chronic stress results from repeated exposure to stressful situations. The body is continuously releasing stress hormones, which can eventually cause wear and tear on the body and mind.
High-pressure jobs, financial difficulties, and challenging relationships are examples of potential causes of chronic stress.
Stress and Hormones
During a stressful situation, the body will release adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These are the three major stress hormones. Adrenaline is a natural stress hormone that can increase your heart rate, elevate blood pressure, and increases energy supplies. It is what we consider the “fight or flight” hormone. Adrenaline is produced in the adrenal glands after the brain sends a message that a stressful situation is present. Imagine driving down the interstate and trying to change lanes. Suddenly from your blind spot, a car comes zooming by at high speed, causing you to swerve back into your original lane. Your heart is beating faster, your muscles are tense, your breathing is quicker, and you are more alert. You are experiencing adrenaline. \
Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline. Both are released from the adrenal glands, but the brain also releases norepinephrine. Just like adrenaline, norepinephrine’s role is to increase arousal (aware, awake, and focused). Why do we have norepinephrine if it’s similar to adrenaline? Think of them as being a backup system. If the adrenal glands are not working well, norepinephrine can still be released by the brain.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. Unlike adrenaline and norepinephrine, cortisol takes more time to feel its effects. This is caused by two additional hormones that play a part in releasing cortisol. First, a part of the brain called the amygdala (almond-shaped matter involved with experiencing emotion) has to recognize the threat. Once it identifies the threat, it sends a message to the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH is a peptide hormone involved in the stress response. CRH then sends signals to the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Finally, the ACTH can send a message to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Cortisol’s primary role during a stressing time is to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure. When the body releases too much cortisol, the elevated levels can lead to health problems.
How Does Stress Affect Eating Behaviors?
A study conducted at the UT Southwestern Medicine Center suggested that the hormone ghrelin may be a contributing factor to increased hunger when stressed. Ghrelin is a hormone produced and released by the stomach with small amounts released by the small intestine. It is considered our “hunger hormone” because it stimulates our appetite, increases food intake, and promotes fat storage. Research has concluded that the increase in ghrelin can decrease behaviors associated with anxiety and depression. Consuming high fat and high sugary foods can increase our ghrelin levels while lessening our stress-related responses and emotions. It stimulates the brain’s reward system, which can lead to stress eating. Stress eating can be a way of “self-medicating” when faced with stressful situations. This can lead to mindless eating and poor eating habits.
Not everyone has an increase in hunger. Some experience loss of appetite when they are stressed. The CRH hormone can also suppress appetite. Increased cortisol can lead to a rise in CRH. Being too focused on the source of the stress or anxiety makes it easy to skip meals or suppress our appetite.
Ways You Can Reduce Stress
Lia Templeman, Dietetic Student, Eastern Illinois University
Lia graduated from Illinois State University with a bachelors of science in health education. After graduating, Lia spent several years in the Chicago area working as an operations manager, fitness director, and certified personal trainer. Working in corporate wellness inspired Lia to go back to school to pursue a degree in nutrition and dietetics. She is now a student at Eastern Illinois University and will be graduating in May of 2021. Lia hopes to become a registered dietitian and work with individuals to improve their overall health and wellness.