Stress and Weight Gain
You may think of stress as something that is normal and therefore there is no need to worry about it. After all, stress has become a part of our daily lives and everybody experiences it. So, why worry? Although there is some truth in this statement it is important to recognize that chronic stress can wreak havoc with our health, both mentally and physically.
How Stress Affects Your Appetite
One area of our health that is impacted by stress is our weight. Many people who have become overweight claim that their work is making them fat. This is due to a combination of factors which usually culminates in non-mindful eating, both quality and quantity. Being exposed continually to stressful tasks and situations means that they find themselves turning to foods for comfort and distraction. Unfortunately, this habit is only doing them much more harm than good.
Short term, isolated events causing stress can actually suppress appetite. This is why someone who in a hurry to finish a certain task can forget about eating. The stress of having to beat a deadline makes them forget to eat their lunch and only when they are able to finish the task do they realize they are hungry.
Effects of Cortisol
Due to the stress invoked, their hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormones that have the ability to suppress the appetite, as part of the natural ‘fight or flight’ response. When the threat passes and adrenalin levels subside, cortisol becomes the most prominent hormone. Part of its job is triggering hunger to replenish the fuel that the brain assumes has been used in dealing with the threat. Normally, once a stressful event is over, the levels of cortisol in the body will also decrease.
When stress is persistent and regular it becomes chronic stress. With chronic stress the mind and body are in constant survival mode. Cortisol levels will therefore remain elevated for a prolonged period resulting in continued bouts of food cravings.
If a person is exposed to chronic stress the adrenal glands may become overworked and even depleted. The brain reacts to the ensuing fatigue symptoms as if it were dealing with a low blood sugar episode and triggers a hunger response, automatically preparing for the worst by storing more calories and fats.
Stress Causes Poor Food Choices
Under this regime of unnatural stress, not only is the judgement of food quantity affected, poor decisions are usually made regarding food type and quality. This happens because under the influence of a ‘fight or flight’ response, the mind seeks easily assimilated simple sugar foods.
These would be ideal if the threat was an actual physical threat requiring intense physical activity. For most of us today, however, the stressor is usually emotional rather than physical. This means the ingested food is stored as fat rather than being expended for energy requirements.
Stress and Comfort Foods
Additionally, these same foods trigger the release of chemicals that provide a pleasure response, temporarily dulling the pain caused by the stress. These are the so-called ‘comfort foods’. Unfortunately, because of the feel-good response to these foods, they are continually sought after and can become addictive.
This explains why people who constantly deal with stress can find themselves eating more foods than they need to and find it so hard to ignore their cravings for comfort foods.