An Appetite For Stress? How Stress Affects Appetite and Weight

Food & Drink

It is international Stress Awareness Week and we know that many people living modern lives are stressed a lot of the time. A study by the Mental Health Foundation showed that in 2018 74% of people in the UK had felt so stressed they were unable to cope in the previous year.

Many people think that they respond well to stressful situations mentally but they may be experiencing physical signs of stress that they’re overlooking. Some people might suffer from indigestion or constipation, muscle tension, headaches or sore eyes which can all be physical symptoms of stress.

Stress also impacts our appetite, the foods we are motivated to eat and how we store fat.

This is because of the hormones that we release in response to stress. Cortisol is the main hormone that is associated with long term stress.

Cortisol is our ‘fight or flight’ hormone which means that when it is being released, our body is getting us ready to fight something or to run away. This was a great survival mechanism when the only things we needed to be stressed about were enemies or predators but these days, we’re mostly stressed about spreadsheets and e-mails which actually require us to sit still and be rational.

Because cortisol is getting you ready to fight or run, one of the things that happens in the presence of stress is that your appetite increases. This is to make sure that you are taking enough energy on board to fight off your enemies (or e-mail your boss back).

You may also notice that when you’re stressed, it isn’t an apple or a banana that you really want. This is because we are particularly drawn to highly palatable foods with maximum available energy. Fat and carbohydrates in combination are particularly irresistible to the stressed human. In the presence of stress, the reward centre of our brain is lit up even more by highly palatable foods and they genuinely work as ‘comfort foods’ by dampening down our stress hormones via the release of the happy hormone, dopamine.

This helps to explain why biscuits, cakes and doughnuts never last long in the office.

Stress also affects where and how we store fat. People who have high cortisol (stress hormone) levels, are more likely to store fat around their middle which is not only where we might like to see it less, but it is also associated with worse health outcomes.

So next time you feel stressed because you ate too many biscuits…stop blaming the biscuits and start working on your stress management.

Stress is a hormonal imbalance that can be rectified by reducing the stimulus (where possible) or by counteracting it with stimulus that reduces your stress hormones and increases your happy hormones.

Building activities into your day that stimulate the release of the happy hormone dopamine will help to lower your overall cortisol levels and create more balance.

Exercise is a great way to get a dopamine hit, even low intensity exercise like walking and yoga. Other dopamine inducing activities include listening to music, laughing with friends, completing a puzzle, having sex, mediation and massage.

By building appropriate stress management strategies into your daily routine, your cortisol can be better balanced. Having multiple stress management techniques up your sleeve will mean that you won’t be reliant on doughnuts for your dopamine hit when you’re feeling the pressure.

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