Understanding stress eating

More and more of my patients come to me with signs of stress eating.  When you feel stressed, in the short-term, corticotropin-releasing hormone is released from the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for hunger, and suppresses appetite.

The adrenals are also sent a message to pump out lots of adrenaline and cortisol levels rise, putting the body in flight or flight mode. So initially stress can cause appetite to disappear. Adrenaline levels should normalise when the stressful episode has passed, while cortisol levels remain slightly higher, increasing your appetite and making your body want to refuel after the exertion of experiencing stress.


This is the normal built-in human reaction.  However, if the stressful state persists and becomes chronic, a very different kind of reaction starts to occur. Cortisol levels can highly effective health remain elevated and we are stuck in fight or flight mode. In this condition, people usually start craving the foods that the body think will be useful to refuel after stressful activity–sugar and fat.

If these foods are then eaten, a signal is sent back to the hypothalamus to dampen the stress response and any related emotions, such as anxiety or low mood. Eating becomes a way of managing anxiety, often leads to overeating, and leads to the body associating consumption with feelings of calm.

When I see people who are in this stressed state, they are usually gaining fat around the middle: the body deposits it there to be close to the liver for easy conversion back to energy if necessary. Fat around the middle–or being ‘apple shaped”–is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, some cancers and type II diabetes.

Constant stress eating and chronic stress causes insulin levels to vacillate wildly. The body’s cells eventually lose sensitivity to insulin and more insulin is pumped out, which can cause blood sugar surges and lows, and eventually may lead to insulin resistance.  Elevated insulin levels lead to increased androgens and triglycerides while HDL cholesterol levels decrease. These are prime risk factors of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases such as cancer.

Tools to combat stress-eating

Keep go-to sugary and fatty foods out of the house: If you have kids, then they don’t have to feel deprived, just look for healthier options. For example, instead of pastries, sugary desserts and biscuits, choose low GL fruits and a handful of nuts alongside, yogurt with fruit or healthier fruit and nut bars containing low levels of natural sugars rather than refined sugar.

Following a low GL anti-inflammatory diet and balancing blood sugar helps to blunt stress response and reduce cravings. Combine carbohydrate with protein or fat to slow down sugar release.

Herbal medicine maybe useful: in particular nervines (passiflora, camomile, vervain), adaptogens (ashwaghanda, shatavari, bacopa, oat straw), liver herbs (artichoke, berberis, burdock, dandelion) and herbs which help to balance blood sugar (gymnema, goats rue, fenugreek, Siberian ginseng, cinnamon and Korean ginseng). See a herbalist to get a good blend made up.

Low-intensity exercise such as yoga, pilates and walking is better than high impact choices (running, high intensity cardio), which the body perceives to be stressful, raising cortisol levels further.

stress eating and the reward system

 Think of something else you could do when you feel the urge to stress eat: What do you love to do? It could be reading, knitting, going for a walk, meditation, seeing a friend. Make a list of things you could try instead. Immersing yourself another activity can help reduce emotional overeating.

 Social support: people often find their stress resilience is better if they have a good support network around them. Can you talk to your friends or family? If not, seek out a counsellor or a coach.

 Sleep hygiene: Be sure you eat at least 2 hours before you go to bed. Never eat refined carbohydrates or other sugar snacks at night. Keep electrical devices (laptops etc) and work out of the bedroom, hide your smartphone so the bright light isn’t visible, shut the curtains properly, stop using the computer at least one hour before bed.

Unplugging allows for the natural progression from sundown to the darkness afterwards, which triggers the release of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, and functions to help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm.

Cortisol works in tandem with melatonin, a potent antioxidant in the body, which is why chronically stressed people often experience sleep issues. I never recommend anyone take synthetic melatonin supplements, however. Montmorency cherry juice is very high in natural melatonin, and 30m before bed can help to regulate sleep patterns.

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