Can Stress Make Us Overeat?

Have you ever caught yourself in a situation when you overeat after a busy and hectic day? I think you’ve probably experienced this. All of us have. The truth is, stress and the hormones it releases make us overeat and we end up eating a whole bar of chocolate even though we planned to take just a few bites.

We just act on impulse in order to feel a bit better, even for a moment only.

Effects on Appetite

Namely, one of the brain parts called the hypothalamus unleashes corticotropin-releasing hormone, which has the ability to suppress appetite but only in the short term. Plus, the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to release the epinephrine hormone, also called adrenaline.

Then, this hormone provokes the body’s fight-or-flight response – a psychological state in which the body suppresses appetite and puts eating on hold. And all of this is a result of temporary stress only.

However, when it comes to stress that is persistent or perceived as such, the story and the effects are quite the opposite. Indeed, in case of persistent stress, a hormone called cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. And, cortisol is known to increase motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.

Thus, cortisol is hormone that can increase appetite. The levels of cortisol should go down when stress disappears. But, if it lingers a bit longer, the cortisol levels may keep being increased.

Fat and Sugar Cravings

Unfortunately, stress doesn’t only increase appetite but also affect food preferences. And, of course, you wouldn’t have veggies or fruits on your mind, but sugar, sweets, and fattening snacks.

 According to various studies, many of them done on animals, physical or emotional distress can lead to an increased intake of foods that are either high in fats or sugar or even both. This effect usually occurs when high cortisol levels combine with high insulin levels. Alternatively, as some research suggests, the hunger hormone called ghrelin may be responsible for this.

Moreover, once fattening or sugary foods are ingested, there’s kind of a feedback effect impeding activity in the brain parts responsible for producing and processing stress and similar emotions. So, we may conclude that sugar cravings occur simply because they fight stress.

And, bear in mind that overeating isn’t the one and only segment that can add some extra weight. The truth is that stress people often suffer from lack of sleep and exercise and excess of alcohol, all of which can add pounds and lead to being overweight.

Different Responses

Surprisingly but true, research suggests that there’s a difference in the way females and males cope with stress. For example, women are far more likely to relieve their stress using food, whereas men usually turn to alcohol or smoking.

A study conducted in Finland on more than 5,000 women and men showed that obesity was only linked to stress-related eating in women only, not in men. On the other hand, another research claimed that both genders can be affected by obesity as a result of high stress levels, with a greater effect on men.

Furthermore, some researchers from Harvard University pointed out that work-related stress and other issues are connected to weight gain, but only in those who were already overweight before the study period began. One possible explanation for this is that overweight people already have increased levels of insulin which increases the chances of stress-weight gain.

Another factor that affects stress-related weight gain is the amount of cortisol people release when responding to stress. A group of British researchers conducted a study which showed that people who usually respond to stress with elevated cortisol levels tend to turn to snack in response to everyday hassles.

Steps You Can Take

Even though different research point out to different results, there are some proven steps you can take to reduce stress and, thus, lower the risk of overeating and obesity. Here are some of the best options:

1. Meditation

We’ve all heard about it, and yes, it is true – meditation benefits your body in many different ways including reduced stress. Apart from lowering your stress levels, meditation will help you lower high blood pressure and keep you safe from heart diseases. What’s more, if you meditate you are far more likely to make smart food choices and impede the impulse to grab unhealthy food.

2. Exercise

Another great thing you can do is exercise. Namely, intense exercise can increase the cortisol levels momentarily, whereas exercise which is low in intensity can reduce them. A research done in 2010 by the University of California researchers shows that high-intensity exercise can reduce the negative effects of stress. And, if you aren’t keen on vigorous exercise, you can do yoga or tai chi which is a combination of both meditation and exercise.

3. Social Life

Last but not least, spending time with people you love has a buffering effect on stress. In other words, people cope with a stressful situation more easily when having social support. This is especially important, and proven by research, for people who work in stressful situations. However, having social support is also vital for anyone regardless of the nature of their job.