Why do our bodies signal us to eat in times of stress? Stress eating is common when facing difficult problems or even if you’re just feeling bored! Emotional eating can really sabotage your weight management efforts. Let’s explore what internal factors contribute to stress eating, including the role of cortisol and ghrelin in stress and hunger, and what you can do to take control of your eating habits and stay on track with your weight management goals.
Stress eating can be triggered by a need to soothe negative emotions associated with stress, anger, fear, sadness, loneliness and even boredom. Stress has been documented to increase cravings for sweet, fatty and salty foods and has been tied to over eating and weight gain.
Research has shown that overweight individuals can show increased cortisol, ghrelin, stress and hunger following stress and can have even greater increases in cortisol and subjective stress if they are night eaters.¹
Stress and cortisol production
One major contributing factor in stress eating and weight gain is that stress leads to increased cortisol production. If not corrected, increased cortisol levels lead to increased belly fat. This is known as the fat-stress connection.
Cortisol is released to prepare the body for stress and another preparation is to break down muscle for energy. Excess circulating cortisol leads to sluggish metabolism, muscle breakdown, and fat accumulation often in particular areas of the body such as the abdomen and underarms.
Cortisol is the primary hormone released as a stress response and ghrelin is a hormone associated with appetite stimulation. Under normal conditions, ghrelin levels rise to stimulate eating, but then fall once a person begins eating a meal.
Ghrelin—the hunger hormone
Ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone”, has direct effects on hunger and therefore the ability for people to lose weight and maintain weight loss. As ghrelin levels rise so do hunger and cravings for mostly carbohydrates. When you start to think about food or catch yourself grabbing a food you know you really don’t need it is likely the result of ghrelin.
Ghrelin does more than just increase food intake, it can also increase fat mass. Ghrelin impact on cravings is also implicated in other reward behaviors such as smoking and other drugs. Levels of ghrelin can be inappropriately increased by smoking, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and other inflammatory activities.
Leptin is the hormone that works opposite of ghrelin. Not only do inflammatory markers increase levels of ghrelin, they can reduce
leptin activity. When inflammation is high, certain cytokines become elevated and overload the leptin receptors. These actions create a state of “leptin resistance” and elevated levels of ghrelin, which place people in the unfortunate cycle of high cravings and high risk of weight gain, insulin resistance and further inflammation.
One study concluded that emotional eaters tend to maintain ghrelin levels for a longer duration as compared to normal eaters, even after food consumption. The study also showed that emotional eaters tend to have higher levels of cortisol after high bouts stress.²
What can you do about stress eating?
If you are a stress eater, you can try to implement some healthier lifestyle habits such as listening to music or going for a walk when you feel the urge to stress eat. Keeping a journal can help identify possible triggers. Figuring out the people, places and situations that contribute to your emotional eating habits can help you control them better.
Possibly one of the best courses of action to take is to address the possibility of underlying inflammation issues.
The cycle of unhealthy diets and inflammation
When inflammation is reduced, ghrelin and cortisol levels decrease, leptin resistance subsides and weight loss is achieved.
Research has discovered how abdominal fat and unhealthy diets can lead to inflammation. Fat cells, particularly those in the visceral fat that settles in the belly and around internal organs, are major causes of inflammation. This type of fat pumps out molecules known as cytokines, which trigger the immune system and start an inflammatory cascade.
Fat tissue acts as an endocrine organ, storing and secreting multiple hormones and cytokines into circulation and affecting metabolism throughout the body.
Fat cells produce and secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines and visceral fat can produce these inflammatory molecules at levels sufficient to induce a strong inflammatory response. The visceral fat that accumulates near abdominal organs can be quite productive.
Fat will respond to stress hormones produced when exposed to stressors. The stress hormone cortisol binds to fat cells and can increase the number of fat cells but also promotes the storage of fat. Increased fat cells equate to more inflammation and thus begins a vicious cycle of inflammation and damage.
How can you reduce inflammation?
Significant weight loss can reduce inflammation within a few months. A number of nutritionists and physicians have developed anti-inflammatory diets. An anti-inflammatory diet is the same as an alkaline diet, which discourages eating acid-promoting foods such as processed foods, white sugar, white flour, caffeine, and alcohol.
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Priority You MD provides personalized, integrative healthcare for general wellness, anti-aging, athletic performance and weight management as well as more complex medical issues. In addition, our facility also provides aesthetic services and fitness training. Combining diet, nutrition and exercise with evidence based medicine and preventative therapies, our goal is to help our patients achieve and maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.
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