What we eat can have a sedative or magnifying effect on stress. Furthermore, if the diet is not controlled or at least acknowledged during times of stress it can pave the way for a number of eating disorders such a binge eating and anorexia. Research shows that roughly 40% of individuals increase their food intake during times of stress, 40% decrease their intake and 20% stay the same (1).
So how do we combat stress through drink and food? The key is in maintaining a healthy blood chemistry and satiety. A healthy blood chemistry is one that has healthy levels of water, sugar, fatty acids, electrolytes, oxygen, and other nutrients.
How does the Stress Response Affect Hunger?
The stress response (fight-or-flight) has an initial sedative effect on hunger. The body allocates many of its resources to support movement and help an individual survive potential danger. Blood is shunted to support skeletal muscle, heart, and brain function- other processes like digestion are put on halt. This initial response, however, changes if the stress response is maintained for long periods of time and shifts to stimulate hunger.
The chronic exposure to stress seems to promote hunger rather than avert it. This is due to prolonged exposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with obesity and metabolic diseases in Cushing’s syndrome (1). Prolonged stress and cortisol exposure promote the consumption of tasty foods which are typically high in fat and sugar. This increases the likelihood of eating comfort foods and binge eating in times of stress.
Counteracting the Effects of Stress on Hunger
Maintaining a healthy blood chemistry will help control the adverse effects of prolonged stress/cortisol exposure. This means staying hydrated, maintaining a steady blood sugar, a steady insulin release, and electrolytes. This is achieved by eating well-balanced diets that are rich in soluble and insoluble fiber, avoiding diuretics, and drinking plenty of water.
What to Eat and Drink
Nothing will ever replace water, not energy drinks and not juice. It is important to drink lots of water during times of stress as dehydration contributes to an irritable mood and reduced cognitive function. Stress itself takes a toll on cognitive ability, making it harder to concentrate and learn- staying hydrated counteracts this. Electrolyte water or mineral drops to water supply may also be beneficial, as electrolytes increase water absorption.
Fruits and Vegetables-
Fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense and have lots of fiber. This helps control weight gain while providing diversity in nutrients. Insoluble fiber from fruits and vegetables help easy bowel movements and prevent constipation- a potential source of physical stress. Insoluble fiber stabilizes blood sugar release (and thereby insulin) and promotes a healthy vascular system (blood vessels). Healthy blood vessels ensure that enough blood is traveling to the brain and different parts of the body.
Carbohydrates are essential to maintaining a stable mood and energy levels. Complex carbs take longer to metabolize than simple carbs which contributes to a steady blood sugar. Examples include- whole grains, vegetable, legume, oatmeal, and brown rice.
Healthy Fats and Protein-
Protein and fats promote satiety, the feeling of being full and satisfied (opposite of hunger). This is because protein and fats take longer to digest (break down) and metabolize (to harvest energy) than carbohydrates. Foods with high fat and protein contents, therefore, promote satiety.
It is important to pick healthy sources of fat and protein and to realize that animal meat is not the only source of protein. This is because animal protein contains saturated fat, which clogs up the arteries and compromises vascular function. It may also lead to constipation and inflammation of the GI tract- which may only aggravate stress.
Nuts and seeds are also good sources of protein and healthy fats (unsaturated fats). Unsaturated fats promote fluidity of blood vessels and oppose their clogging. Fish is also a good source of unsaturated fats- Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain and eye function, they may also boost mood and reduce inflammation.
What to Avoid
Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which causes the stress response. This means that it will contribute to stress rather than counteract it. Caffeine is also a diuretic, meaning that it will contribute to dehydration and have an effect on mood. Drinking caffeinated drinks late in the day may also interfere with sleep, another important regulator of metabolism and mood.
Alcohol’s initial effect on the body is relaxing and sedative, but this is not the case for long-term exposure. Over time, alcohol can cause changes in mood and contribute to stress. Alcohol, like caffeine, is a diuretic and may interfere with sleep onset and maintenance.
Comfort foods which are high in fat and sugar contribute to unstable sugar/insulin levels reflected in overeating. It is important to stay away from convenience (packaged) foods, which are typically full of additives, sugar, and fat. Unstable blood sugar and insulin levels contributes to hunger episodes and overeating.
The best way to maximize health and get results is to address diet and nutrition and all its contributing factors. Talk to our staff at Santa Cruz Core to set up a series of consultations in with our Integrative and Functional Nutritionist today.
Yau, Yvonne H.C., and Marc N Potenza. “Stress and Eating Behaviors.” NBCI-Minerva Endocrinology, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, Sept. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/.