Are your days filled with stress? Are you always hungry? Well, those two things may be related. In this post, I explain why you feel like eating when you’re stressed and why your hormones made you do it.
What Causes Stress Eating – Summary
- Stress causes the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), which promotes hunger and cravings
- The “hunger hormone” called ghrelin can increase in times of chronic stress
- Eating comfort foods causes the release of a feel-good hormone in your brain called dopamine. The brain forms an association between comfort food and relaxation, making stress eating a learned behavior.
Why You Feel like Eating When Stressed [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- The different types of stress.
- What stress does to the brain.
- How to avoid stress eating!
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
There are two types of stress that we experience: short-term or acute stress and long-term or chronic stress. The first is that quick adrenaline rush that you get when you get scared. Those brief fight-or-flight moments take away your hunger because eating in that moment is unimportant.
If the emergency ends quickly, your system resets, and the hormones that geared you up for action quiet back down again. However, if the emergency continues, the hypothalamus of your brain starts the release of a cascade of hormones. One of these hormones is cortisol, which is often referred to as the stress hormone.
Cortisol, Stress, and Hunger
Cortisol helps to keep your body in a state that is ready for action by raising your blood sugar level. This readily available fuel source ensures that your muscles and organs have plenty of energy to handle the situation. Here again, if the stressor goes away, your body resets without consequence.
The problem is that many of us go through life with constant stress, so we continually push this cortisol gas pedal. When chronically elevated, cortisol promotes hunger and cravings, making you more inclined to overeating.
Ghrelin “The Hunger Hormone” and Stress
Cortisol isn’t the only appetite-stimulating hormone affected by stress. Studies show that a primary hunger hormone called ghrelin can increase as well (1).
You wouldn’t be wrong if you blame your hormones for causing hunger during stressful times. And, hormones can make things even more complicated because they are responsible for giving us that false sense of well-being that comes when we eat comfort foods.
Comfort Food & Dopamine – The Calming Effect
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post on what it is that makes comfort foods, like pizza, cookies, and chips so addictive. The answer is that these foods contain refined carbs that get absorbed into your system quickly mixed with just the right amount of fat to make them irresistible.
When you eat these types of foods, a hormone is released in your brain called dopamine that makes you feel calm and relaxed. It makes you feel so good that your brain remembers the pleasure you got from eating the food.
The next time you feel stressed out, your brain gives you a nudge and reminds you that all you need to do to take the edge off the stress is grab that candy bar sitting in your pantry.
How to Avoid Stress Eating
I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture when it comes to stress eating, but we are not powerless. I will point you to my post on how to stop stress eating, which shares some practical steps you can take to avoid overeating in the moment.
In this post, I want to set a longer-term strategy by sharing how you can create an internal environment that gives you an advantage, so you’re never caught off guard and feel a need to turn to junk food when stressed. You do this by eating in a way that stabilizes your blood sugar.
When you fill your day with processed and refined foods, so you start your day with toast or muffins, and then you have a sandwich with chips or fries at lunch. Dinner is pasta, in between meals, there are candies and sugary drinks.
Those quick-absorbing foods cause your blood sugar to go on a roller coaster ride that is subjected to crashes that make you seek out comfort foods. Add stress to your day, and you feel completely out of control.
In contrast, when you eat whole, unprocessed foods like eggs, salad with meat or fish, cooked vegetables, and low-glycemic fruits, your blood sugar remains stable throughout the day, and you lose your dependence on sweets.
I know that sounds like a big claim, but this is the experience of many people who follow a well-formulated low carb diet. If you need a place to start, I encourage you to download my 0,1,2,3 strategy, which is a foundation plan that has been downloaded by more than 60,000 people.
It will help you get refined foods out of your diet and whole foods in. Thanks so much for reading and have a wonderful week!
(1) Chuang, Jen-Chieh, and Jeffrey M. Zigman. “Ghrelin’s roles in stress, mood, and anxiety regulation.” International journal of peptides 2010 (2010).
About the Author:
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.