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We all know the harmful effects of stress.
It can cause weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
Stress can also make us do things that we logically know aren’t good for us.
Like eating junk food.
When stressed, your body often tries to find relief in foods. Especially those high in sugar and fat.
But why does eating relieve stress?
And how can you reduce stress without food?
This science-based article has the answers.
It All Starts With Cortisol
Here’s the thing:
Short-term stress curbs your appetite. (2)
When you encounter a stressor, your body tells the adrenals to pump adrenaline.
- Adrenaline triggers your body’s ‘flight-or-fight’ response, which slows down the digestion.
For this reason, it’s hard to eat when you’re anxious or having a panic attack.
But chronic stress is different.
When you’re constantly under tension, your adrenals produce more of another hormone – cortisol.
Cortisol plays a role in raising your appetite and motivation for food.
Side note: studies suggest ghrelin, another “hunger hormone”, also plays a key role here. (1)
After the stressor is gone, cortisol levels usually fall off. But if the stressed state persists, cortisol stays raised. And so does your hunger for food.
Sugar Dampens Stress – At Least Temporarily
Stress doesn’t just affect our hunger.
It also makes you crave specific foods – those high in sugar and saturated fat. (2)
This is an ancient survival mechanism that allowed us to store energy for later. Needless to say, this doesn’t serve us much good today.
- When you eat highly palatable and calorie-dense food, your body releases certain hormones that suppress stress signals and emotions. (3)
This is one of the answers to “why does eating relieve stress”.
And this is why foods with refined carbs and fats are often called “comfort” foods. Because they make you feel good and relaxed – at least temporarily. (3)
But “comfort eating” isn’t the only way we as humans cope with stress.
Chronically stressed people also reach for that glass of wine more often, exercise less, and generally have poor sleep. All of these contribute to weight gain and health problems. (4)
We’ll explore health issues of “stress eating” in a minute.
But before that, you may want to know about another reason why eating relieves stress – dopamine.
The Dopamine Trigger
Another reason why eating during stress feels so good is dopamine.
Yes, our reward brain chemical.
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that releases when we do something that our body deems as “good” or more specifically, something that contributes to our survival. (5)
Eating that donut probably won’t increase our odds of survival – but the brain doesn’t know that.
There are still parts of the brain that haven’t yet adapted to our modern lifestyles.
These parts of the brain still pretty much live in the hunter-gatherer era.
During this period in human history, seeing food (especially those high in sugars and fat) would trigger a massive dopamine spike – urging you to eat it as soon as possible.
This is part of the reason why restraining yourself from indulging in junk food is so hard.
How Does Stress Eating Affect Your Health?
So far, we’ve learned why eating relieves stress. And why it feels so good when you eat processed food.
But what effects does this have on your body?
When you combine chronic stress with unhealthy eating, it can have some serious consequences for your health. These include (6):
- Insulin resistance (left untreated, this could lead to diabetes)
- Heart problems
- Artery plaque
- High blood pressure
- Chronic inflammation
- Low testosterone
- Poor focus
- Low motivation
- Lack of energy
And the list goes on.
The truth is, stress on its own can cause these health issues. But when you pair it with fast food, the risk for disease increases.
How To Relieve Stress Without Food
Luckily, there are much healthier ways to relieve stress than relying on sugars and french fries.
From exercise, meditation, to taking natural supplements that relieve stress and anxiety. See for yourself:
Meditation is one of the best stress-reduction methods known to man. More and more experts recognize its importance to our health. It’s like training for your brain, much like lifting weights is for your body. Studies show that meditation physically changes the shape of our brains. It reduces the amygdala, which is the ‘fear center’ of our brain, while increasing the regions linked to emotional resilience, cognition, and mood. (7)
Going for a run when you’re stressed is one of the best ways to clear your mind. Exercise helps release feel-good chemicals in your brain, including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. All of these are key mood regulators. Just make sure not to overdo it; short and intense exercise is the best. On the other hand, longer workouts tend to increase cortisol. (8)
Go in Nature
Spending time in nature is another way you can easily mitigate stress. Being present with the sounds of nature acts calming on your nerves. This helps lower cortisol while at the same time boosting GABA and serotonin, the relaxing and mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. (9)
Spend Time With Friends and Family
Having social support is extremely important for our emotional well-being. Studies show that people who work in stressful environments, such as emergency rooms, deal better with the situation when they have support from people around them. (4)
Take Natural Anti-Stress Supplements
Unbeknownst to many, taking natural supplements is one of the best ways to relieve stress – quickly and easily. Adaptogens such as ashwagandha or Rhodiola rosea work wonders for stress; reducing cortisol while boosting dopamine and serotonin. (10, 11)
Performulated nootropic stacks contain some of these herbs, alongside many other natural ingredients. These work in synergy to boost your mood, cognition, and resilience to stress. Some of the most effective anti-stress nootropics include Mind Lab Pro and Performance Lab Mind.
Your FAQs Answered
Here are some of the more common questions asked in regards to stress, diet, and lifestyle:
How to stop stress eating at work?
Stress eating at work is a common occurrence amongst people nowadays. To stop stress eating at work, try:
- Taking 5 deep breaths, being mindful and aware of each inhale and exhale. This is a form of meditation which is known for reducing stress hormones – helping you deal with cravings more skillfully.
- Sip on tea or water – drinking more water will help you keep full and reduce your cravings.
- Have a healthy snack – bringing a healthy snack with you at work is one of the best ways to prevent yourself from binging on that chocolate. Eat something that has a lot of fiber, such as an apple. Fiber swells in your stomach helping you stay satiated.
Can stress cause eating disorders?
Stress can potentially lead to, or aggravate an existing eating disorder. This is because when you’re stressed, your cortisol levels go up, stimulating your brain to look for foods high in sugars and fats. Indulging in these foods could lead to feelings of guilt which can potentially contribute to the development of an eating disorder. (12, 13)
Which foods increase stress?
Foods that increase stress include:
- Refined carbs – cause blood sugar spikes, leading to mood swings, elevated cortisol and inevitably, stress.
- Sugars – much like with refined carbs, sugars cause your insulin levels to spike, which is stressful for the body, leading to elevated cortisol levels.
- Alcohol – paradoxically, drinking too much alcohol increases your stress hormones. It also aggravates your heart rate and blood pressure, which are the typical symptoms of a stressed state.
- Caffeine – Being a coffee lover, it was hard to put this one on the list. But the fact is, coffee increases stress hormones in our body, including adrenaline and cortisol. A cup or two a day probably won’t do you harm. But more than that and you’re going to invite more stress than you want.
- Fried foods – this type of food is full of trans-fats and omega-6 fatty acids. Both are highly inflammatory. Inflammation and oxidative stress go hand in hand; when your body has to deal with too much inflammation, your stress levels inevitably go up.
There you have it – this is our detailed article on why does eating relieve stress. Along with other frequently asked questions.
We’ve learned that stress induces several changes in your body.
One of these changes is an increase in cortisol.
Cortisol raises your hunger and motivation for food. You start craving more fats and sugars, which trigger powerful hormones in your brain.
- When you eat food during stress, your body produces ‘happy chemicals’ which relieve tension. Hence the term “comfort foods”.
But long-term, this can have a host of negative effects on your health.
From high blood pressure, diabetes to cognitive decline.
Some of the healthier ways of tackling stress include:
- Having the support of friends and family
- Taking natural anti-stress nootropics, such as Mind Lab Pro and Performance Lab Mind
Nootropics may be particularly helpful in these situations because they not only reduce stress – but also help you deal with stress more skillfully.
Nootropics help produce neurotransmitters that regulate your self-control.
As a result, you might just skip that piece of chocolate next time the craving arises.
Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. (source)
Neurohormonal Regulation of Appetite and its Relationship with Stress: A Mini Literature Review. (source)
Stress exposure, food intake, and emotional state. (source)
Why stress causes people to overeat. (source)
Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity. (source)
The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. (source)
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. (source)
Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. (source)
Levels of Nature and Stress Response. (source)
A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. (source)
Stress management and the role of Rhodiola rosea: a review. (source)
Stress-induced eating in women with binge-eating disorder and obesity. (source)
Prenatal and early life stress and risk of eating disorders in adolescent girls and young women. (source)