Link between stress and food

Anyone reading this can either learn or prepare themselves for the inevitable.

There are different ways in which the body responds to stress. For simplicity, we can term them as short-term stress and long-term stress. Before dwelling deeper into this, it is safe to assume that stress in some form or the other does persist in every household. Be it resulting from daily chores, that from work pressures, some kind of illness in the body, or maybe even over exhaustion through lack of sleep and over exercise. Basically, anyone reading this can either learn or prepare themselves for the inevitable.

You would be surprised to know that stress does not lead to over-eating always. In the short term, it in fact shuts the appetite down. The adrenal glands produce adrenaline that induces a fight or flight response, a heightened psychological state that puts eating temporarily on hold.

On the other hand though, stress that persists longer can have a totally different response. The same adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which you rightly guessed by now, causes a massive spike in appetite. While it increases motivation, it also motivates you more to eat. Emotional or physical distress can also affect the food choices, focussing more on sugary and fat rich foods. Research also suggests that our hunger hormone ‘Ghrelin’ (this is a hormone that induces the sensation of hunger when your stomach is empty) may have a role to play in this as it may falsely indicate that we are hungry.

What happens in this situation is that the high levels of cortisol result in higher levels of insulin, which in turn becomes responsible for weight/fat gain. Studies show that in times of distress, it is women who are more likely to resort to food for comfort, while men turn to smoking and alcohol. While we may dislike the weight gain, it is actually a defence mechanism or coping mechanism to help the body cope with the stress.

Now the bottom line here is to find out how we can cope with this over dependence on comfort foods when stressed. Reaching for that chocolate bar or packet of potato chips may be the easiest solution, but becoming aware of this and taking the right steps will be your eventual saviour. As we have said over the years, precaution is always better than cure. Some of the tried and tested techniques used by nutritionists like ourselves over the years include a combination of the following:

1. Do not keep comfort foods handy- ridding your snack cupboard and refrigerator of these high fat, sugary foods will ensure you do not have quick access to them. Always works!

2. Exercise- giving up the snacks may be difficult at first, so incorporating physical activity simultaneously can help put you on the right path. Not only will you use the various muscle groups to improve your strength, stamina and flexibility (and yes burn those extra calories), but you will induce the secretion of endorphins, the feel good hormones that have a counteracting effect on the body. They help reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline, thereby naturally reducing the body’s urge to seek comfort foods.

3. Meditation- stress eating can have other adverse effects on the human body like elevated blood pressure so meditating can help streamline your thoughts and in turn restore balance by inhibiting those impulsive habits.

4. Social support- This option is an add on. Catch hold of your close friends or family members and seek comfort by discussing your issues with them. Professional help is also available to those who need it. Drawing from real life experiences and speaking your mind can have profound effects.

5. Adding stress relieving foods- consume green tea as it is rich in L-Theanine, a non-protein amino acid with stress relieving properties. Add fibrous foods like broccoli, chick-peas and berries as their nutrient profile will ensure an overload of fibre and essential micronutrients that comprise a host of vitamins and minerals. You can also add an ashwagandha and veg omega-3 supplement that have both proved to be very effective in lowering cortisol levels.

Regulating your sleep cycle can also greatly impact your overall health. Being disciplined is of utmost importance so stop negating your health. You owe it to yourself.

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