from Harvard Medical School, December, 2011

Effect of Stress on Appetite   Short term, stress can trigger the hypothalamus to release a hormone that turns off the appetite.  But if stress is perceived to persist, the adrenal glands release cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite.  It also increases motivation in general, including, alas, the motivation to eat.

If the stress goes away, cortisol levels fall to normal.  But if it doesn’t go away, or if a person’s stress-response switch pegs at “on,” cortisol may remain elevated.  And so will the appetite.

Fat and Sugar Cravings  Stress affects food cravings.  Countless studies (many in animals) show that physical or mental distress increases the consumption of foods high in fat or sugar—or both, thanks to high cortisol levels in combination with high insulin levels.

Once eaten, fat- and sugar-filled foods have a feedback effect on the brain, blocking activity in the parts of the brain that process and produce stress and related emotions.  By counteracting stress, fat and sugar temporarily “heal” our discomfort.

There are other behaviors in response to stress that also result in gaining weight, such as losing sleep, exercising less and drinking more alcohol.

Different Responses  Some tests show women being more likely to turn to food to relieve stress and men more likely to alcohol and smoking.  On the other hand, some studies associate stress-related weight gain with women but not with men.  On the other other hand, some studies find high stress levels leading to weight gain in both women and men with the effect on men typically greater than on women.

             Steps You Can Take  Here are three suggestions:

Meditate  Numerous studies show that meditation reduces stress and may help you make more mindful food choices.  With greater awareness, a person may be able to inhibit the impulse to grab traditional comfort foods high in fat and sugar.

Increase Exercise  University of California researchers reported that vigorous exercise may blunt some of the negative effects of stress.  Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have the benefits of both meditation and exercise.

Visit with Friends  Social support dampens the effect on the stress people experience.  Researchers found that the mental health of persons working in hospital emergency departments, for example, is better if they have are part of a social network.

Even those of us not regularly involved in stressful situations will be better off if we regularly connect with friends.   


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