Are relationships, the holidays, work, home or just life in general stressing you out? You’re not alone. A recent survey says three-quarters of Americans have unhealthy levels of stress leading to irritability, fatigue, lack of energy or pigging out. Amazingly, two-thirds of those surveyed said they overeat in response to stress.
Stress eating, or comfort eating, occurs when people turn to “comfort food” to deal with their anxiety, but they get caught up in a vicious body-chemical cycle that can spiral out of control. Here’s why: Under chronic stress, the body produces more steroids and insulin which increase the appetite, prompting you to eat more—usually junk food.
Those feeding frenzies can increase fat storage, especially in the omentum, a fatty layer covering the intestines. More fat storage causes additional bodily chemical reactions—including more insulin release, making you hungrier and compounding stress. You see? This cycle literally feeds on itself since the more fat you store in the omentum, the more it reduces the effects of stress on your brain.
While fat packs your waistline, the battle continues in your head. At the center of your brain is the hypothalamus, which regulates metabolism and appetite with chemical releases. Among those are the hunger hormones known as leptin and ghrelin. When functioning properly, leptin signals when you’re full and ghrelin signals when your stomach is empty. Those struggling with their weight, however, can be leptin resistant, which means they don’t register being full.
Additionally, comfort foods like double cheeseburgers, deep-dish pizza, ice cream and glazed donuts contain palmitic acid, which can also affect the brain. This fatty acid goes straight to your head, telling your body to ignore appetite-suppressing signals from leptin or insulin—hormones noted for weight regulation—for up to three days. Since your brain isn’t told to stop eating, you just keep eating.
So much for explaining how stress affects your appetite and the release of weight-affecting chemicals…but the root of the problem is stress and how it can become a weighty problem, even for teens. A six-year study from Iowa State University found that adolescents who are stressed are more likely to be overweight. In fact, 47% of those in the study became overweight due to stressors, but that number increased to 56.2% when even higher stress levels were factored in.
I’ve heard that stress is the trash of modern life—and if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life. Stress can overtake your weight, too, so find ways to manage stress through exercise and other healthy activities.
Pigging out simply isn’t a productive way to respond when you’re stressing out.