After a stressful day, you find yourself at the bottom of a pint of ice cream. Often times you feel that this is out of your control and don’t fully recollect what happened. This is known as stress eating or emotional eating, eating in an unconscious way to deal with stress.
Eating junk food provides a temporary relief of stress and is a coping mechanism. However, emotional eating has long term consequences that are very detrimental, and if the stress goes unaddressed it can lead to chronic health problems due to overactivation of the stress response in the body.
Let’s break this cycle and understand why this occurs and what you can do to end emotional eating.
Stress activates two pathways in the body depending on the type of stress: The SAM system secretes adrenaline/epinephrine and is the immediate response to an acute stress whereas the HPA axis secretes cortisol during chronic stress.
(Read more about the stress pathways in detail here: http://www.psychteacher.co.uk/stress/stress-pathways.html)
The Sympathetic Adrenal Medullary System (SAM system) is activated during acute stress and is the immediate response. Catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) are released, which helps us focus (norepinephrine) and prepare our body to run away or fight (epinephrine) in response to acute stress. Acute stress can be short term illness, skiing, projects at work or school or exercise. During this time, blood flow is redirected to the muscles, heart and brain and energy is mobilized for use to help us to fight or run away. Appetite is initially suppressed to help us deal with the stressor.
Acute stress can actually be a good thing that can push us to reach our goals during exercise or on a very challenging project, especially if we perceive it as a controllable challenge and not as an uncontrollable threat. We need some good stress and challenge in our day to day lives.
However, this becomes an issue if the stressor is out of control or long term and becomes chronic stress. The energy that was mobilized for the fight or flight response needs to replaced, this brings us to feeling hungry and leads to over eating.
Chronic stress activates the Hypothalamic- Pituitary- Adrenal (HPA) axis, a neuroendocrine system that regulates energy homeostasis. The HPA axis is responsible for the secretion of the “stress hormone”, cortisol. When cortisol is secreted in an uncontrolled way, our health can suffer.
Cortisol is secreted to prepare the body for a fight or flight response by supplying an immediate energy source, glucose, to large muscles, and blocking insulin secretion so that we don’t store glucose.
Our appetite becomes affected during chronic stress as cortisol interferes with leptin and insulin secretion, which are responsible for communicating with the hypothalamus to signal that we are full. If that mechanism does not work, we over-eat. Cortisol also promotes the secretion of the dreaded hunger hormone, ghrelin. Fat storage, especially visceral fat, also is increased during times of stress because the body things that we need the excess energy to fight off the stressor. Visceral fat is the fat around the organs in the abdomen. Cortisol also makes us sad by decreasing serotonin, the “feel good neurotransmitter” in our brain by affecting tryptophan’s conversion to serotonin, diverting it to create Quinolinic acid, vitamin B3, CO2 and ATP instead.
Stress and the HPA axis affects brain reward system which releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Eating high sugar/high fat foods can desensitize the reward pathway by decreasing the amount of dopamine that is released. If the pathway becomes desensitized that means that we need more hyperpalatable foods to obtain the same response. This builds the preference for junk foods and increases our cravings for them.
In the stressed state, we only think about short term survival and don’t focus on the future. This is because regions of the brain responsible for executive decision making and higher cognitive functions are affected. Cortisol impairs long term memory retrieval and enhances short term emotional memory. That leads to immediate, positive reinforcement of turning to comfort foods, and this becomes a learned behavior quickly. People then start to associate negative emotions with eating comfort foods.
Target the cause of emotional eating head on and deal with the stress. Take care of your body, eat well, get more rest and exercise!
- Practice mindful eating. Understand that stress eating does happen and don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, slow down and actually savor your food when you feel the urge to stress eat.
- Meditate and practice deep breathing. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system to help us calm down. Read more here: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2009/issue61/
- Take a walk or stretch for 5 minutes. Use that energy that is mobilized by cortisol. Our bodies are suited for fighting predators and for challenge. Not only that, exercise promotes tryptophan uptake acids into the brain to produce serotonin. Here is a simple yoga flow to do when you are stressed: http://yogasite.com/sunsalute.htm
- Eat foods rich in vitamin C, magnesium, omega-3s. Vitamin C curbs levels of stress hormones, lowers blood pressure and strengthen immune system. Foods rich in magnesium and omega-3s helps to decrease cortisol as well.
Yau, 2014. Stress and Eating Behaviors. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4026680/
Sominsky, 2014. Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/