Most of us are over-scheduled, burnt out, have responsibility to make things happen but not the authority to actually do them and exhausted. Cortisol, a stress hormone, courses through our bodies almost constantly.
Acute, short-term stress can steal your appetite, making you feel nauseous, edgy and not at all interested in food. Chronic, ongoing stress will make you hungry.
The human body is programmed to believe that stress hormones = running away from a lion. That means LOTS of calories burned that need to be replaced – quickly. Sitting behind your desk on a conference call with an angry client or stuck in traffic doesn’t burn any extra calories. But the stress hormones in your system are the same.
What Stress Does to Your Body
When your body gets stressed your adrenal glands pump out cortisol and adrenaline. Immediately glucose (blood sugar) spikes, insulin is released and your blood pressure goes up. At the same time your immune system is suppressed and digestion stops as all available blood is rerouted to the muscles.
All of that makes sense if you were running for your life. Your muscle cells would need glucose to burn immediately. Peak blood flow and insulin would get it where it needed to be and remove the waste products just as quickly. And who cares about fighting a virus or digesting food if you’re about to be lunch!
When there is no intense physical activity when under stress the hormones and glucose stay in your blood rather than being burned off. Your body releases more insulin to get your blood sugar back to optimal levels, and since your muscles didn’t use it, it’s stored as fat. The extra insulin over-shoots the amount of glucose in the blood and your blood sugar crashes.
Additionally, once the adrenaline of a stressful situation starts to wear off, your body is programmed to replace the energy you used. Except you didn’t actually use any energy.
All of that adds up to craving fast, easy calories. Salt, sugar, fat – usually in a highly processed form (like ice cream or pizza). Eating that type of food releases dopamine and serotonin. It feels good, calming and brings your emotionally frenzied brain back online.
Great. Except you just took in a WHOLE lot of calories you didn’t actually burn. No worries. They can be stored as fat.
Repeat multiple times a day for years and you can see how you ended up more than a little soft around the middle.
What I just described is a physical and psychological one-two punch causing your body to crave and be addicted to high fat, high calorie foods. But knowing the problem is only part of the solution. The other part is changing the things you can control. Reducing the stress in your life goes without saying. And there are a few other things you can do as well.
Set Your Body Up to Succeed Under Stress
Consistently eat foods high in nutrition– When your body regularly has the nutrients it needs it’s going to be better prepared to handle outside stressors. Reduce, better yet eliminate, animal products: meat, dairy, eggs. They are loaded with fat and hard to process excess protein. Eliminate low nutrient high calorie foods, basically anything processed. If it comes in a shelf-stable package with an unreadable list of ingredients, don’t eat it. Increase red, yellow, green and orange veggies. Increase whole-food starches like sweet potatoes and grains. Increase fruit.
Setting your body up with the nutrients it needs before you’re being chased by a lion will make the stressful event less damaging to your body and make you less likely to uncontrollably make unhealthy food choices.
Get enough sleep– Sleep is when your body gets to do repairs and settle things down. If you’re running on too little sleep, the stress from one day bleeds into the next and the next and the next. Building up over time to a deadly level. “Enough” sleep is eight hours a night. Don’t kid yourself by thinking you can function on less. You can and as a society we have It’s not optimal and it’s not healthy. You make time for the things that are important and sleep is important.
>Exercise– That’s not news. Twenty minutes a day with an elevated heart rate caused by physical activity.
Address Your Psychological Addiction– This is probably the most difficult suggestion I’m going to make. It’s also the place where you can make the biggest change. Recognizing, understanding and changing your emotional, mental and psychological relationship with food is really hard to do by yourself. That's where working with someone like me for a few months can be really helpful.
If you are ready to address the way stress is negatively affecting your health, let’s set up a free get-to-know-you chat. Send me an email and let’s get you on track to taking control of your stress eating. Health@RnRJourney.com
Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.