Have you ever noticed how you always seem to get hunger cravings on those busy, stressful days?
Stress eating is widespread, with four in ten Americans saying they overeat or eat unhealthy foods to manage stress. According to the APA, stress is a significant issue in the US, making it difficult for people to manage their eating habits properly.
Stress, hormones, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” get people addicted to overeating. What many people don’t know, however, is that it is possible to change these habits, fend off cravings, and re-wire your body to crave healthy foods.
Let’s be clear; this isn’t easy. Evidence suggests it may be more complicated than overcoming a drug/alcohol addiction! Understanding the feedback loops that tie together your eating habits and stress levels is critical.
How Stress Affects Eating Behavior
Stress affects your hunger and eating habits in a variety of ways.
In the short term, stress actually can reduce how hungry you feel. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine switches on the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, which boosts energy and diverts focus from eating and digestion to activity and stress.
When stressed, your adrenal glands release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that flood your system. These hormones raise your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, and make your blood more likely to clot. When these hormones are released too often due to high levels of consistent stress and a poor diet, inflammation can result and damage your brain’s memory center, increase belly fat storage, and generally wreak havoc on your body.
While this is true from a short-term view, consistent activation of the stress response system can trigger hunger cravings more often. Stress causes the adrenal glands to release a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol increases motivation and behaviors with a reward and stimulates your appetite.
If your stress activation system gets stuck in the “on” position, cortisol levels can spike and increase hunger cravings throughout the day. Elevated circulating levels of cortisol cause food cravings, as the body delays the digestion of food already eaten to respond to stress.
In this situation, your body is just confused and unsure whether it wants to eat or prepare to respond to a stressor.
It’s important to understand that the reverse is also true!
Your eating habits and diet can also make your body more prone to stress. According to one study, participants who ate a sugary breakfast experienced hunger cravings sooner than those who had a more savory breakfast with minimal sugar.
As you can likely infer, there is a vicious cycle of stress and poor eating that can be hard to break free from at first.
The Role of Ghrelin
Studies tell us that the appetite-stimulating chemical Ghrelin also plays a critical role in this process. These studies reveal that ghrelin plasma concentration increases parallel to cortisol after we experience stress. As ghrelin rises, so do hunger cravings.
However, ghrelin does more than just increase food intake, as it’s also responsible for managing fat storage. Reward-based behaviors such as smoking and drug use activate ghrelin. Ghrelin levels increase with smoking, a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and other inflammatory activities.
Let’s take a look at a scenario just to illustrate this picture a little more clearly:
You’re driving to work and running a little late, and you realize you need some coffee if you’re ever going to make it through this challenging work day. You’re already feeling stressed and pressed for time, but you stop to grab a coffee and a muffin. The caffeine in coffee increases catecholamines, which trigger the stress response system.
The stress response then elicits cortisol, which increases insulin when coupled with the sugar in that muffin. Insulin increases inflammation and makes you feel lousy. To top it off, the sugar in the muffin increases cortisol and adrenalin, which lead to more cravings throughout the day.
You’ve probably had quite a few days like this. From the studies we’ve looked at, you can see why piling days like this on top of each other can cause you to be hungry more often, develop stubborn fat build-ups, and also find it difficult to fight off anxiety and stress when you are trying to relax.
Managing Stress with Proper Diet and HRV Readings
The goal of any health-conscious individual is to maximize health and adaptability to daily training and stressors. One of the best ways to achieve this is to minimize unnecessary stress on the body outside of targeted training/activation methods. Eating healthy foods is a powerful tool.
From a nutritional standpoint, what you eat (or don’t) can play a significant role in your recovery and adaptability. Food is information, and the old saying “you are what you eat” is extremely important to take to heart.
Eating foods that promote inflammation in the body creates stress for your body. Any type of inflammation will likely increase stress, hunger cravings, fat storage, and other debilitating effects. Consistent stress and unhealthy, inflammatory foods reduce our ability to adapt and recover daily (let alone from athletic training), resulting in a less variable HRV score.
Reduce Stress With These Simple Techniques
Comfort foods high in sugar and carbohydrates elicit a slight relief from stress and provide fast-acting pleasure. However, this response is short-lived, and i’s essential to fight these short-term cravings. Adopting more delayed gratification decision-making is vital to making positive progress.
Keep in mind that these pathways for gratification develop tolerance when activated repeatedly. The same desired effect will require more and more food.
There are multiple ways to reduce stress, including:
Consider Your Perception of Stress
Stressors can be real or perceived. Either way, they activate your body’s natural stress response system. Also, acknowledging that stress is not inherently bad is essential. Identifying that stress can be used and controlled can help relieve its harmful impact.
Mindfulness meditation and breathwork practices can help you change your way of perceiving stress. You’ll be more likely to accept things the way they are. This change in perception can go a long way towards handling stressors and enabling you to choose how you react to them. Understanding the adverse effects of stress can help you re-arrange your priorities and learn how to find balance rather than trying to avoid it.
In our society, it seems we are always primed and ready to perform. Even when you try to unwind after a long day of work, the mind seems to have difficulty shutting off or slowing down. It’s essential to learn how to relax actively. Active relaxation helps to trigger the powerful natural healing mechanisms in the body and gives you that balance between activation and absolute rest.
To actively relax, swap out TV or video game sessions with a walk, some reading, meditation, or even yoga or tai-chi practices. As you incorporate this into your weekly routine, you will notice that it becomes easier to switch to a more relaxed mindset.
As you’ve read a lot in our pieces, exercise is vital for leading a balanced lifestyle. Moving your body and pushing yourself can help reduce inflammation, balance cortisol levels, and help re-define your relationship to stress.
The physical symptoms of stress can be challenging to confront. The body’s response to stress can feel so bad that it causes mental stress, creating a vicious feedback cycle. As your muscles tense, your jaw remains clenched, and your muscles tight, your mind mimics this tightness and rigidity. During the stress response, the mind and body can amplify each other’s distress signals, creating a vicious cycle of tension and anxiety.
The root cause of stress is emotional, but it also has a significant physical component. You can control it by gaining insight, reducing life problems that trigger stress, and modifying behaviors that create unnecessary stress. Stress control can — and should — also involve the body. Studies show that exercise reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators.
Learn a New Skill
Learning something new can help you switch up your routine and get out of your comfort zone. Trying out a new yoga class, trying out a musical instrument, playing a new sport, or meeting up with a new group of people can help you achieve growth and develop self-confidence. Learn to approach stress healthily and embrace change rather than sticking to what’s uncomfortable and reacting negatively to it.
Feed Your Body
As we mentioned, food is information. If you feed your body a diet heavy in fat and carbohydrates, then inflammation will result. Inflammation triggers a stress response, making it difficult to turn off this system.
Eating a balanced diet with plenty of whole foods and vegetables from sustainable sources gives your body the nutrients it needs to reduce inflammation and adequately maintain itself. Alongside a balanced lifestyle and a balanced amount of stress, a healthy diet can serve as your natural pharmacy.
For example, The most pronounced effect of diet on inflammation involves the essential fatty acids (EFA). Without going into too much about this physiology, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids act as substrates in cascades that control inflammatory products. Neither are bad; however, the typical North American diet contains larger amounts of omega-6 that predominantly affect the pro-inflammatory pathway. So, try to increase omega-3 consumption to balance healthy fats, reduce inflammation, and improve your adaptability to stress.
Don’t Let The Cycle of Stress Get The Best Of You!
As we have learned, stress leads to more hunger cravings, which leads to more stress. To disrupt this never-ending cycle, you must put off instant gratification for long-term healing and wellness. As you begin to rest actively, eat better, and improve your relationship with stress, you will notice that your hunger cravings are not as frequent and that your body craves good food over fat and sugar-ridden food. As you progress in this journey, keep track of your HRV using your Hanu wearable to visualize the improvements to your stress response system.