This in one of the fundamental subjects I’ve been very much looking forward to tackling. We have all heard from one source or another how stress can affect our eating habits. But is this a fact or just another urban myth? Do the two actually correlate? Which is the one having effect on the other, is it food on stress or vice versa? All this and more I intend to explain this chapter.
Now I am not here to tell you what to eat and what not to eat. I am not here to determine what amount of food you take. I am certainly not here to put you on some diet regime. The brain and its profound effect in our lives and decisions is what I want to focus on in dealing with this contentious issue of food and stress and how the two correlate with one another.
There is plenty research that has documented the concept of “stress eating”. Many studies suggest that stress eating habits are some kind of natural body response to high levels of stress. That whenever we get stressed out over something we tend to seek comfort in our most preferred food to give a temporary sense of relief. Researchers have also concluded that weight gain is inherently linked to stress induced overeating.
Your eating habits are as a result of many interloping factors. Eating very sparsely and overeating could be responses to stress in different people, or even within a single person at different levels of stress experienced. A lot of studies have been conducted over time with regards to the effect of our eating habits on the soundness of our bodies and minds. The effect of stress on our brain, its perceived resulting effect in our body -such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and obesity have generated a lot of debate. While there is no absolute consensus on these protracted matters, what remains starkly obvious is that stress does have an overbearing effect on how and what you eat. Thanks to massive research in the past decade, a clear link between levels of stress in our body and our eating habits has been uncovered.
Taking a look back into our discussion on brain chemicals, I stated that whenever you go through a trying experience which translates to stress, the brain releases two key hormones, epinephrine adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline of course is that hormone that prepares you for an “exciting” experience; it’s the anticipatory hormone for the boy that gets you ready for any possibly stressful situation that is imminent. Cortisol on the other hand works in a slightly different manner, in the sense that its release by the brain is a much less continuous process; even its volume is on much managed scale as well.
Cortisol is what is mainly referred as the “stress hormone”. Its levels go high in the body over the course of the day when we are going through stressful experiences. It is said that cortisol might have an effect on that ever stubborn belly fat that we never seem to be able to shed. But what’s the truth to that assertion? What role or purpose does an elevated cortisol play in the overall wellbeing of our bodies?
Too much of anything is bad! We’ve all been hearing this sermon since we were toddlers. A little of something might be cool but when we cross over the balanced threshold we get to experience the raw side of what was just recently okay to live with. Cortisol is no different in this respect. A proportionate and limited amount of cortisol in the body helps you cope with the stress. However, an inordinate amount of cortisol or an extended exposure to it could literally cause a spark in your brain, and not in a good way.
Our body is wired to respond to stress situations in a certain way. Stress hormones are immediately triggered when our body experiences a tough situation; these stress hormones cause a movement of energy around the body in anticipation of the incoming signals. Cortisol transfers any excess calories it could find in the body to the gut area. This deposit is placed around the liver, to give it easy access for synthesis as the body prepares for a high energy consuming task. This is all good for the body, but only if the process is not overextended beyond its normal cycle.
Have you ever wondered why the body craves for you to munch on something tasty why you are seriously stressed? Or you just actually thought it was all you, rather than an involuntary response from your body’s command? Our body craves a copious amount of rich food to match our stressed out moods. This is the phenomenon though which the body responds to being exposed to stress. Remember we mentioned that cortisol is your body’s attempt to provide excess calories for the liver to consume? Well your body does have to have this excess for it to be deployed. IN the absence of such a reserve calorie pool, a distress signal is immediately sent out to the brain for it to command your body to make up for the deficit. And soon enough you seem to get that inescapable urge to munch on something that will fill the gap. This when you find yourself reaching out for that candy bar, or that yummy chocolate cake, you feel it’s just you trying to fulfill a desire, while in reality you are just obeying your brain’s commands without even realizing it.
As mentioned above, cortisol release is what makes your body able to cope with stress it experiences from time to time. It is a perfectly normal thing in your body to release when all is not going well. However, in very aggravated circumstances the body can’t seem to be able to stop releasing cortisol into your system. This extended exposure to cortisol is what constitute too much is bad in this instance. Exposure to chronic stress plunges the body into a vicious cycle where cortisol is continuously supplied to the body, which will in turn make this body demand for more calories. And yes you guess it right, the body demands more sumptuous food which will in the end leave you and I with unburnt and unwanted fat and increased body mass.
The next time you are going through a very hectic day at the office and suddenly you feel “hey, why not a candy bar, or some juicy steak”. Well now you know, this is not some conscious decision you are taking. It’s all the chemicals in your body making you do it. And for what it’s worth, it is just a temporary escape that is meant to make you feel better but only for a while. You can be rest assured this happens to the best of us all. Stress through the effect of the hormones it unleashes can drive us all into an eating spree.
Appetite and How Stress affects it
Considering all we have learnt in this chapter so far, oddly enough once you are exposed to a high stress situation; your appetite immediately shuts down albeit just for a while. The brain through what is known as the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin hormone which suppresses your appetite. This is what happens initially when you are stressed out and can’t even stand the sight of food. The brain also sends message to the adrenal glands atop kidneys to release epinephrine aka adrenaline. This adrenaline rush jolts the body in to a fight or response mode. That’s when you are psyched up and anticipating the very worst, ready for any eventuality. This is when your body shuts down any love for food you might be having.
But once the stress beyond a very short span of time, cortisol kicks in to help you cope. It motivates you to handle the stress signals you are experiencing, and of course it does also motivate you to eat some more to fill your energy reserves that might be going down soon. As soon as the stress situation passes cortisol levels drop back to normal pre-stress levels cutting off the cravings that come with it, but if one is unlucky to be stuck in the stress situation for long cortisol gets stuck in the “on” mode keeping levels elevated throughout.
Stress we already know comes with countless biological and physical effects on our bodies like headache, increase in blood pressure, anxiety and even depression. Stress we now know at the very least indirectly affects our eating habits which in turn affect our overall health conditions and wellbeing. Not only does stress determines our eating patterns and control our appetite timing, it also has direct influence on the actual kinds of food we choose to take. Whenever we get stressed out, we don’t usually go for that salad or fruit. We tend to lean towards heavier foods that are massive on calories. Junk foods of all kinds are the easiest, most readily available to immediate consumption and that is why a lot of people get hooked on them, leaving us with a host of health and body weight issues.
Those who are steadily exposed to chronic stress level in their day to day lives may be unwittingly fall into medicating or managing their stress with ever increasing daily caloric intake. And once stuck on this merry-go-round without even realizing, we eventually get the harsh end of such eating habits in the form of various health problems. Stress has such wide reach with its tentacles that you and I could get entangled into it through a thousand and one different ways. It comes in all forms, shades and sizes, it affects each one of us in a unique way. For an adult like you and I, stress might be as a result piles of bills we have to pay, an overdue mortgage or just a huge fight we got in with our beloved. For a child on the other hand, it could be as a result of being bullied at school, for a college student may come from a missed test in class to name a few instances. The fact is that stress has such a pervading presence in our lives to such an extent that having a stress-free day seems kind of weird.
The Omnipresence of stress in the modern life is mainly due to the lack of accurate enlightenment. Most people in America for example are ill-equipped to handle and manage stress effectively. A lot of focus and attention is placed on the mere symptoms than the root cause of the huge health problems people are facing.
As earlier broached upon, we all respond to the stress we experience in our individually unique ways. Same stress levels could trigger wide range of responses in different people. For instance, inordinately high stressors such as chronic illness or death of a loved one may trigger a decrease in one’s appetite, known as hypophagia or not. While milder stress exposure could trigger increase in appetite or hyperphagia in some people while others don’t experience it. The pattern of responses largely depends on an array of factors based on the individual which include their gender, dietary restraint among others.
These are the strong almost uncontrollable yearnings or desire we often experience. Most times than not, cravings are not related to any actual physical need such as hunger. It is that maddening drive to consume food; it’s so much stronger than normal hunger. When we experience a craving, our body immediately pictures the “reward” for bending to its command in such a wildly attractive manner, that most cannot resist. And of course cravings come with such an urgency that requires us to satisfy it which more or less pushes most of us to the fast food to satisfy it. Cravings due to their extremely powerful persuasions are the main reasons a lot of people grapple with excess weight and obesity. Ghrelin or “hunger hormone” also plays a partial role when it comes to cravings.
In the study on the foods that cravings push us to, chocolate and its derivative confectionaries top the list. Fatty, sugary foods as well as other cholesterol rich foods feature heavily on the list. Once we let ourselves indulge in these cravings, by ingesting a lot of fat and sugary foods, they in turn have a backlash effect on parts of our brain inhibiting its ability to process stress related emotions. These foods are just a “temporary comfort” that only appear to counteract our stress, which makes them even more attractive for people to consume.
Overeating however, is not the only stress-induced behavior that can affect one’s overall wellbeing and health. Stressed people also lose a lot of sleep, they exercise less and more prone to taking alcohol which can all contribute to the addition of excess weight.
As usual, I will share a few tips in combating the root causes of these unhealthy behaviors. If I were to tell you, scrap this and that from your fridge and kitchen, it would only amount to treating the symptom not the illness itself. I will not order you to take on some grueling exercise regime for that will only solve part of the problem and for a limited time only. However, if we tackle the main problem frontally, cutting it at its root, then we will succeed in eliminating all its ramifications.
Your Brain is Your Most Powerful Asset
My main goal for you and I in this program is to realize the immensity of the power that is at your disposal. This huge pool of resource that we always seem to ignore to tap is right there sitting at the top of your head waiting for you to deploy it to do your bidding. Your brain, my brain each and every one of us is the key, the absolute link that when properly deployed will complete transform our whole lives and the decisions we make. Don’t underestimate this amazing gift that you have. It is not a physical endeavor like the gym, so your body stamina doesn’t figure here. It is not some diet bible forcing and ordering you what you must eat and at what times. Your brain is yours to command at your pleasure only if you know how, of course.
Only You Can Determine How You Respond to Stress
Cutting the problem as I’ve earlier intimated, means pinpointing the cause and effecting measures to countering it. Stress causes us a lot of damage. Its negative effects are sometimes so far that we tend to take them in isolation as problems on their own, which defeats any solution we choose to take, as they will eventually reappear. You and only you have the power all in your head to determine how stress can affect you. Your brain if properly trained and leveraged can eliminate any further effect of stress as soon as it appears. Your brain can be trained to detect early warning signs of stress, and then prepare you as anticipate and neutralize it before it gains any root.
You are an amazing being, with immense power at your disposal. Transformation of not just your body but your life in its entirety begins right in your head. With proper training your brain will unleash its power, turning your whole life around. When you and I hit the gym, it’s no more than weights we are lifting. Every progress stands to be undone unless the root of the problem is cut-off and only your brain through its immense power can achieve that. A conscious brain can reboot your entire existence, which will make all other ventures and endeavors you undertake, physical or otherwise as effortless as lifting a feather.