Stress can make it difficult to function normally, much less make healthy food choices. Inevitably, our overly stressed lives take a toll on emotional and physical health, often resulting in low energy, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, reduced immune function, and persistent uncontrollable food cravings. Eating unwholesome food occasionally is not likely to affect weight or overall health. Binging on one unhealthy food after another is a recipe for weight gain and ill health. Chronic stress that induces us to overeat can lead to increased abdominal fat and negate our will power to suppress unhealthy lifestyle choices.
When under acute stress, the brain triggers a release of chemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol to help manage any immediate threat. While threats we face today are markedly benign compared to the challenges confronting our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the neuroendocrine system functions much the same way as when we were hunting wild game or facing famine over a long winter. Today we may be anxious about work demands, family responsibilities, college tuition or any number of modern stressors, yet our brains still tell us to eat and store fat, as if we couldn’t just dial up a pizza or go to the local market and buy copious amounts of ice cream, chips and cookies to supply us for the long haul or a night in front of the TV.
While adrenaline wears off rather quickly, the stress hormone cortisol does not. Cortisol is essential to the maintenance of homeostasis, and under normal circumstances cortisol levels naturally fluctuate as we move through our day. Important to human nutrition, cortisol helps to regulate energy. It’s cortisol that signals the body to increase glucose and inhibit insulin production, supplying an immediate energy source during a stress driven event or trauma. With our constantly stressed lifestyles, our bodies continually pump out cortisol, and consistently produce glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels and insulin resistance.
Insulin suppression essentially deprives our cells of energy supplying glucose, sending hunger signals to the brain resulting in overeating. Eventually stored as body fat, unused glucose can result in the buildup of very unhealthy fat stored deep within the abdomen where it surrounds our internal organs. This metabolically active visceral fat releases inflammation causing chemicals known as cytokines, which are linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. When the stress induced cycle of cortisol overproduction and binge eating continues, the body becomes increasingly taxed and unable to perform optimally. As systemic inflammation and elevated cortisol levels are interrelated, naturally decreasing inflammation should also lower cortisol levels.
Common sense guidelines for reducing stress include making a concerted effort to get more sleep, addressing emotional issues, modulating inflammation through diet, and participating in regular cardio, as well as relaxation exercises. When our reaction to stress rests solely on our own shoulders, how we choose to live our daily lives can either optimize our bodies’ stress response or have deleterious effects on our general health. While some level of stress is unavoidable, minimizing stressors by getting a handle on our triggers can reduce cortisol production to help the body normalize, return to homeostasis, and regain optimal health.
The following suggestions may help to minimize unhealthy food cravings by feeding your body what it might really need:
– If you are craving fried or fatty foods, try eating food that contains healthy fats, such as a small serving of raw unsalted nuts, olives or avocado.
– Cravings for simple carbs like bread, pizza or pasta may be a signal that your energy stores are running low. Simple carbs will spike blood sugar, providing a quick energy boost but may leave you hungry an hour later. Opt for high fiber whole grains like oatmeal or cereal that won’t spike blood sugar and will satisfy your hunger longer.
– If you are looking for a sweet treat, try reaching for a piece of whole fruit, full of fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients. If you are craving something cold and sweet, opt for a good quality, low sugar, plain yogurt and top with your own fresh fruit or nuts.
– If you must have something salty, try steamed edamame with a bit of natural sea salt. Instead of chips or pretzels, opt for a small salad of tomatoes and feta cheese drizzled with olive oil.
– If you trying to keep hunger at bay, have a hardboiled egg. A hardboiled egg contains about 78 calories and will provide high quality protein and amino acids and satisfy your hunger.
– Just craving anything you can get your hands on? Thirst can often be confused with hunger. Try having a glass of water and see if you still feel hungry after 15 minutes.
Professional Supplement Center carries these and other high quality products to support healthy cortisol levels and overall wellness:
Cortisol Manager™ by Integrative Therapeutics – This standardized proprietary blend provides safe support for all day stress reduction and the natural ability to fall asleep. Gluten and dairy free, vegetarian, non-habit forming formulation.
Cortisol Management by Complementary Prescriptions – This product supplies patented proprietary blends of botanical extracts that help combat stress-related eating, aid concentration and mental clarity and provide relaxation without sedation.
Cortisol Calm by Pure Encapsulations – This formula helps maintain healthy cortisol levels, and supports relaxation, restful sleep, and positive mood during stressful times. Gluten and soy free, non-GMO vegetarian formulation.
Single Test in Saliva Cortisol by ZRT Laboratory – This at-home saliva test kit allows for convenient timing of saliva collection especially for assessing cortisol levels. Prepaid shipping label included. Lab results are sent directly to you. Test kit includes 15 minute in person or telephone consultation with our registered nurse.
Diurnal Cortisol – Cx4 by ZRT Laboratory – This four-stage saliva test kit measures cortisol levels throughout the day and assesses adrenal function. Prepaid shipping label included. Lab results are sent directly to you. Test kit includes 15 minute in person or telephone consultation with our registered nurse.
Why We Gain Weight When We’re Stressed – And How Not To. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201308/why-we-gain-weight-when-we-re-stressed-and-how-not
Abdominal fat and what to do about it. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it
Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/
Cortisol – Its Role In Stress, Inflammation and Indications for Diet Therapy. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml