You’ve experienced the stress hungries. You’re twenty minutes into rush hour traffic that’s not rushing anywhere while flashbacks from your boss’s daily tantrum loop in your head like an ice cream truck’s tune. Your heart pounds and your hands squeeze the life from the steering wheel. The next exit promises a donut shop and suddenly all you want is warm, round, sugar glazed yumminess.
The perfect hormonal storm
When you’re first under stress, your body immediately shifts into emergency mode due to signals from the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, priming your body to either fight or flee from the stressor. Under the sympathetic nervous system’s influence, your body releases hormones that alter heart rate, breathing, and blood flow, and some of these suppress appetite— for a brief period. Soon after, though, your body secretes another stress hormone, cortisol, which increases appetite, weakening your defenses to the call of the donut.
Another hormone, ghrelin, is also released during stress. Associated with feelings of anxiety, it’s a potent appetite stimulant, particularly for foods high in calories, sugar, and fat. Eating these foods suppress ghrelin’s secretion and consequently —you guessed it— relieves some of the associated feelings of anxiety. Thanks to these stress hormones, some people develop “food addictions” to these comfort foods and habitually turn to junk foods under the influence of stress.
Unfortunately, the calming action of eating these foods is short term. If stress isn’t managed another way, the negative effects of these hormones and a stress-eat-stress cycle can have long term consequences such as
- Robbing the body of B vitamins, the family of vitamins required for energy production and stress resilience
- Increasing cravings, blood pressure, and heart rate
- Promoting insulin resistance, one of the first steps in the development of diabetes
- Stimulating abdominal fat storage, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- Worsening reactive hypoglycemia, blood sugar drops after eating that cause hunger, shakiness, sleepiness, sweating, anxiety, lightheadedness, and confusion
Strategies when the stress-hungries hit
When you notice yourself becoming stressed and your anxiety level ratcheting up, there are measures you can take to defend yourself against a stress binge.
As simple as it sounds, breathing (properly) can actually change your physiology and reduce stress. Remember the sympathetic nervous system and the so called “fight or flight reaction” that kicks in under stress? Under sympathetic influence, respiration becomes faster and shallower. A different branch of the nervous system, the parasympathetic branch, supports relaxation. By simply slowing your inhalations and exhalations and breathing more deeply— into your belly rather than your upper chest— for several minutes, you can switch control of your nervous system from team sympathetic to team parasympathetic and turn off secretion of the hormones that are triggering your cravings.
Exercise is one of the best natural stress-busters around. Although high intensity exercise can temporarily raise cortisol levels, lower intensity exercise seems to reduce them, and both high and low intensity exercise can blunt some of the negative effects of stress through the tremendous cascade of biochemicals they release. Exercise also increases insulin sensitivity (the opposite of insulin resistance) and improves appetite regulation. Even a ten minute walk, a quick burst of jumping jacks, or an impromptu dance jam at your desk can begin to reduce stress hormones and the cravings they cause.
Drink and eat wisely
If you can’t resist those appetite-boosting hormones altogether, you can put things in your mouth that will help to dampen cravings rather than increase them. First of all, drink. (No, I’m not talking about rum and Coke.) Drinking plain water can help you feel more satiated. Drinking warm (non-caffeinated) teas that include calming herbs such as lavender, eleuthero, or chamomile can help you feel more relaxed as well. If you must eat, avoid the simple sugars and high fat foods that your stress hormones are encouraging. Instead, choose high fiber foods with complex carbs and some protein to help stabilize your blood sugar, cortisol, and insulin levels. A lettuce wrap with chicken and veggies, an apple with nut butter, or carrot sticks with hummus are some good options.
Everybody gets stressed, but you don’t have to let stress hormones control your food choices, your waistline, and your wellbeing. Exercise your right to exercise, breathe with awareness, treat your body to foods and drinks that support a balanced biochemistry, and let your stress hormones and the cravings they instigate wither away.
(for more information about what I do, please visit http://www.lisenaugle.com)