I see patients in my nutrition practice all the time who are stressed to the max, and yet I so often get funny looks when I ask them how they go about reducing that stress. Some of them say they walk or meditate, but the majority tell me they have no stress-reduction program, or that they use food to keep their stress at bay.
This is not news to me. In my 20 years as a dietitian, I’ve seen a great many clients who use food to deflect stress. My background as a certified yoga teacher immediately comes in handy here, especially when a patient seems extremely anxious. Five minutes of deep breathing, and the person who was on the verge of a panic attack gradually starts to take deeper lungfuls of air and then becomes visibly more relaxed.
Ok, so what are some of the ill effects of stress, and how can it cause you to gain weight?
Stress can tip the scales against you in several ways. In times of stress, your body produces more of the hormone cortisol, dubbed the “stress hormone.” In the caveman days, when life was truly phyically dangerous, chemicals like adrenaline (instant energy), as well as corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol, came in handy because they instantly rouse the body into running mode so that it could flee that saber-toothed tiger before the thought processes even got engaged..
But these stress-induced hormone baths come with a price: Although the powerful biochemicals may initially decrease the appetite, they eventually increase the desire for food, and cortisol typically tends to increase cravings for fat and sugar. In addition, cortisol levels can remain high long after the stress has passed, increasing appetite and food intake.
Nowadays, our stress is usually not caused by savage beasts but by a deadline or by family and work responsibilities. The problem is, our bodies don’t know the difference between deadlines and dinosaurs, and so they produce the same chemicals that got us moving back during the Stone Age. The trouble now is, today’s stressors don’t usually call for a physical response: A box of donuts or cookies lying around the office can take the place of running very nicely, thank you.
If all of this sounds like doom and gloom, cheer up—it’s quite possible to vanquish these unfriendly stress hormones.