[GUEST POST] Stress and Your Eating Behaviors

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Cutting board with sliced onions, mushrooms, and red peppers
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

  • Get social support
    • It’s very easy to isolate yourself, but having social support can reduce stress. Social support can come in many forms, such as family, friends, and acquaintances. They can provide guidance, encouragement, acceptance, and emotional comfort.
  • Making time for self-care
    • We often get caught up in responsibilities that finding time for ourselves is no longer a priority. Self-care refers to any deliberate act you undertake that protects and nurtures your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. This can vary from person to person. It can include hobbies to facial masks and bubble baths. Introducing a little self-care into your daily routine can help relieve stress and anxiety.
  • Practice mindful eating
    • Mindful eating is about listening to hunger, fullness, and taste satiety cues. Increasing mindful eating can decrease mindless eating. Ways to practice mindful eating include: portioning your food, eat with no distractions, pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, slow down when eating, use all senses while eating, focus on how food makes you feel, and asking yourself why you are eating. You can download Dua’s Mindful Eating Guide here to learn more!

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.

References

  • Stress and Your Health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/stress-and-your-health
  • Publishing, H. H. (n.d.). Why stress causes people to overeat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat
  • Comfort Food May Be “Self-Medication” for Stress, Dialing Down Stress Response. (2020, June 12). Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2011/12/11089/comfort-food-may-be-self-medication-stress-dialing-down-stress-response
  • Chronic stress puts your health at risk. (2019, March 19). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
  • Gordon, B. (n.d.). Lifestyle and Managing Stress. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/lifestyle-and-managing-stress
  • Team, B. A. (2020, June 17). How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-stress-can-make-you-eat-more-or-not-at-all/
  • UT Southwestern Medical Center. “Hunger Hormone Increases During Stress, May Have Antidepressant Effect.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 June 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080615142252.htm>.
  • Learning, Lumen. “Introduction to Psychology.” Lumen, courses.lumenlearning.com/waymaker-psychology/chapter/social-support-and-stress-reduction/

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