Stress is a part of life—we can’t escape it, but we all react differently to it. Where some people feel tired and tend to sleep more during stressful times, other people can’t sleep at all. By the same token, stress can cause some people to lose their appetites while others tend to eat their way through stressful periods. No extreme is healthy; the key is to know why these extremes happen and how to regulate your body when you’re experiencing extended stressful situations.
A study published in Cell Metabolism showed that stress causes the stimulation of a particular pathway in the brain that increases your caloric intake. In the study, mice eating a high-fat diet while experiencing chronic stress tended to gain more weight than mice that were not experiencing stress while on the same high-fat diet. Researchers attributed this to the brain’s neuropeptide Y (NPY) molecules, which drive stress eating (also called emotional eating).
What does this mean for humans? In brief, it means that during stressful times, it’s extremely important to watch what you eat as well as how much you eat.
Here’s the reason. The NPY neurons in the amygdala (the part of your brain that controls fight-or-flight and is part of the brain’s fear circuit) control feeding, and when stress combines with a high-calorie diet, your insulin-controlled NPY expression increases, leading to insulin resistance. The study in Cell Metabolism concludes, “Stress combined with a high-caloric diet causes insulin resistance in central amygdala.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen long lines of cars at fast food restaurants or takeout donut shops during times when society as a whole is facing a crisis of one type or another, let alone when individuals are experiencing their own emotionally stressful situations. Emotional eating typically focuses on comfort foods that are high in fat and/or sugar. Stress eating has even become normalized in television shows and movies as an accepted way of dealing with difficult situations, even if it’s handled comedically. However, in real life, the result of habitual stress eating will result in weight gain (possibly to the point of obesity), diabetes, high blood pressure, fatigue and more. These types of foods will also take a toll on your immune system and make you more vulnerable to diseases.
So how do you get stress eating under control? I have a few suggestions for some stress management techniques that can help to reduce your stress level, which in turn helps stop stress eating, aids your immune system, and is beneficial to your overall wellbeing.
When you feel your stress level rising or you feel the need to indulge in emotional eating, start by doing some deep breathing. When we feel stressed, we tend to do more shallow breathing, which makes our nervous system weaker. To counteract that, take in a slow, steady deep breath through your nose, hold it for four to six seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth. Do this several times in a row, and repeat it several times throughout the day. At first you may feel a bit lightheaded, but that will pass.
I cannot stress enough how important movement is—physical activity can’t be an afterthought, it needs to be a priority. Being sedentary in combination with stress and emotional eating is a recipe for disaster, and no amount of vitamin or mineral supplementation will help. Go outside and soak up some sunlight (which helps boost mood and gives you that all-important vitamin D), and take a walk for at least ten minutes, or indulge in any outdoor activity you enjoy. Hiking, shooting hoops, swimming, kayaking—all types of physical activity help both physically and mentally and can get you past the craving for low-value comfort foods.
Tune out the news for a while, and tune in to your favorite music. In the privacy of your home, you can put the popular saying into practice: “Dance like no one is watching”. Not only can your favorite music elevate your mood, dancing is a great form of indoor exercise. When you want to relax, put on some calming music or try meditation; you can find plenty of music specifically suited to relaxation and meditation online if you don’t have it at home.
Proactive measures like these not only help you avoid stress eating, they can also help boost your immune system and keep a positive mental attitude.