Another hectic day--your mental plate is on overload--so why not your physcial plate? On impulse you can hit the vending machine, or your fridge..whatever's convenient right? But you over-did it....and for the moment, you feel better. But digest this--researchers suggest--you're not alone. In fact, scientists say that stress and the hormones it unleashes push people to eating--all the wrong foods, as it turns out.
According to researchers, in the short term, stress can shut down appetite. What this translates to is a structure in the brain called the hypothalamus releasing the corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. Your brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands in your body, atop the kidneys, to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps to trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists--or is (perceived) as persisting-- that's a different story. The adrenal glands releases another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also rev-up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once the stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress continues--or if one's stress response gets stuck in the “on” position--cortisol may stay elevated.
Fat and sugar cravings
Research suggests that stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies, many in animals, have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. Studies indicate that high cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research has shown that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a prominent role.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods appear to have a feedback-effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. In other words, part of our stress-induced desire(s) for those foods may be that they actually counteract stress.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can increase your weight. Experts say that stressed people tend to lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to packing on the pounds.
Some research indicates a gender difference in stress-coping behavior; with women being more likely to turn to food (in times of trouble) and men to alcohol or smoking. A Finnish study that included over 5,000 men and women discovered that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men. Other research has shown that high stress levels lead to weight gain in both sexes, but the effect is typically greater in men.
Harvard researchers reported that stress from work and other sorts of problems correlated with weight gain, but exclusively in those who were overweight at the beginning of their study period. One explanation, ( say researchers): is that overweight people have elevated insulin levels, and stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in the presence of high insulin.
Scientists attest that how much cortisol people produce in response to stress may also factor into the stress–weight gain equation. Several years ago, British researchers designed an impressive study which showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels (in an experimental setting) were more likely to snack in response to daily stresses in their regular lives, as compared with the low-cortisol responders.
Steps you can take
Stress reduction is certainly an expansive industry these days. There are several options for people looking to reduce their stress levels. These are just three suggestions:
Meditate. Numerous studies show that meditation reduces stress, although much of the research has focused on high blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation may also help you be more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to pay better attention to the impulse to grab a fat- and sugar-loaded comfort food and inhibit the impulse.
Exercise more. Intense exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily, but low-intensity exercise seems to reduce them. University of California researchers reported results in 2010 that exercise --and this was vigorous exercise-- may blunt some of the negative effects of stress. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation.
Visit with friends. Social support seems to have a buffering effect on the stress people experience. For example, researchers have found that the mental health of people working in stressful situations, like hospital emergency departments, is better if they receive it.
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