Do you feel yourself reaching for a tub of Ben & Jerry’s after a particularly stressful day? There’s a reason the rom-com cliché of post-breakup binge eating of comfort foods continues to resonate with us. It’s not just due to lack of willpower – it’s because our body’s stress response actually causes us to produce hormones that impact our ability to regulate hunger. In fact, research has found that 79% of people alter their food habits when stressed. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone, and there are simple ways to support your mind and body to take back control of your eating behaviors.
How Stress and Anxiety Causes Appetite Changes
While stress and anxiety are not exactly interchangeable – stress is the body’s reaction to a threat, whereas anxiety is some people’s personal reaction to that stress – they do share behavioral and neurological underpinnings. In terms of what drives hunger or changes in appetite when feeling stress or anxiety, the physiological mechanism is the same, so we will use the two terms interchangeably.
When our stress response is activated, a complex network called our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis, is also activated. This signals to our body to produce neuropeptides and hormones including those that regulate hunger and appetite. For example, we have a hormone called leptin that plays a major role in our ability to manage hunger by signaling satiety, or feeling full. Leptin has been found to be directly impacted by our stress response, with stress causing changes in our body’s ability to release leptin appropriately. This ultimately leads to difficulty regulating appetite in various ways.
In the short term, our stress response cause loss of hunger. This is due to our nervous system sending signals to our body to produce epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline), which activates our fight-or-flight response which tells our body to shut own our digestime system and and feelings of hunger in the face of a threat.
Long term stress and anxiety, however, causes the production of cortisol. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, actually increases our appetite.
This becomes a problem when chronic stress keeps your cortisol levels elevated for extended periods of time. Can impact your mood, sleep and eating habits. And, if we are constantly stressed, our body’s abilty to regulate not just stress but also hunger can become impaired. That helps explains why studies have shown that higher anxiety levels are associated with hunger, over-eating and satiety responsiveness (our ability to regulate fullness.) Even scarier, a long term effect of elevated cortisol levels is elevated blood sugar levels, which can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.
How Stress and Anxiety Impact Food Choices
In addition to increasing hunger and over-eating, cortisol can make us crave less healthy “comfort foods” high in fat and sugar. This is because in a fight-or-flight state, your brain thinks that it needs extra fuel to fight the external threat it’s facing, and fats and carbohydrates (sugar) provide the most and fastest energy, respectively.
The other reason for this is as much psychological (related to our mind) as it is physiological (Related to physical and chemical processes in our body). In moments of distress, many of us find ourselves reaching for “feel good” junk foods. This is because when we eat foods high in fat and sugar, the reward circuits in our brains release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is most notably associated with pleasure, and our brains are hardwired to seek out this pleasure response.
The problem is that, in the long run, many of these same foods that provide a quick dopamine pleasure boost actually make us feel worse and lead to weight gain, fatigue, brain fog, and even increased anxiety.
Here’s How to Stop Stress Eating
Practice mindful eating.
Often in moments of acute stress or anxiety, we find ourselves mindlessly reaching for something to curb our hunger and make us feel good. To get our bodies out of our stress “fight or flight” mode, we need to activate what’s known as our parasympathetic nervous system or “rest and digest” mode. The next time you find yourself reaching for something unhealthy in a moment of stress, take a few deep breaths and try to tune into what your body and mind are feeling. Are you even hungry? If so, is there a healthier option? If not, is there something else that could bring you joy like talking a walk, meditating or talking to a loved one?
Choose foods that fight stress.
- Leafy green vegetables- Dark, leafy greens like kale, spinach and arugula are high in antioxidants to combat stress, as well as magnesium, which has been shown to improve brain functions and reduce anxiety.
- Nuts- Nuts are high both in magnesium and in selenium, which reduces inflammation, in turn tied to mood in people struggling with anxiety and depression.
- Dark chocolate- In addition to being delicious, dark chocolate contains flavanols, polyphenols and magnesium – all known to combat stress.
- Berries- Berries contain high levels of healthy, complex carbs, as well as vitamins and antioxidants to support mood.
- Oats- Full of tryptophan, which your body converts into mood-boosting serotonin
- Natural supplements- Passion flower, b-vitamins, and magnesium have all been shown to have an impact on our body’s ability to regulate stress and can help you reset your stress response to a healthier baseline.
Exercise is a great stress reliever and can help you combat many of the symptoms associated with anxiety, like low energy, mood, poor sleep, and even GI issues. It produces endorphins, known to reduce pain and lift mood, and decreases excess levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in the body. If weight management due to anxiety hunger is a concern, exercise in any form can also help you shed unwanted weight and improve self-confidence.
Do you want to learn more about natural ways to ease anxiety? bekome provides expert consultations and daily supplements to reduce your anxiety at its roots. Shop now or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Written by Vanessa Gottlieb Laudette; Fact-checked by Camila Smith, LCSW.