There are two particular adrenal hormones called cortisol and epinephrine that are released during stress. “Cortisol is a glucocorticosteroid which has numerous effects in our body,” explains Dr. Mona Morstein. “Since it is designed to be secreted in our fight or flight situations, when we need to mobilize energy, cortisol signals the liver to create more glucose, that is, blood sugar.” Dr. Morstein continues to discuss that it is rare that we are facing something that makes us need to run for our lives, so we do not use this glucose for muscle burning. So, when this happens constantly while stressed, we need to have more insulin to deal with that glucose secretion. Insulin takes glucose into our cells and turns it to fat, causing weight gain.
Food allergies are added stress to our bodies. To begin with, Dr. Morstein explains that high cortisol also wears down the lining of the intestine. This can create food allergies which adds stress and can cause water retention and therefore, weight gain.
It is far too common to resort to comfort food in a time of stress or sadness. Comfort food is typically loaded with sugar, fat and high calories and whether you eat too much or very poorly, it is an easy way to gain weight. “Plus, eating badly, foods containing sugar, trans fats, white flours, alcohol, and caffeine have shown to cause us to be more susceptible to depression and anxiety, which of course, is a catch 22 for needing more comfort eating,” adds Dr. Morstein.
Stress can take away motivation to get to the gym. It’s often easier to deal with stress in a sedentary state. Without regular exercise we do not burn off calories and keep our metabolisms strong.
Stress can cause sleep deprivation, as it becomes difficult to sleep well. “Getting less than 5 hours of sleep a night has been proven to increase the risk of one becoming overweight by 235%!” exclaims Dr. Morstein. “Not getting sleep increases the hormone ghrelin, which makes us have a higher appetite, especially for carbohydrates, and lowers our hormone leptin, which helps us control our appetite. End result--low sleep means eating more and eating more.”
Silber has found that when people are stress there is a good chance they are not interested in making healthy choices or reading labels. “You just want the quickest, simplest, most convenient, readily available food that's around,” she says. ”The thought of making healthy choices seems like another task to add to your already over-extended “to-do” list. Unfortunately, those options that are often found in a bag or box does nothing to fuel us but easily packs on the pounds.”
When stressed, the body looks for a release of two specific neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. “These brain chemicals give us the sense of peace, calm as well as trigger the reward centers of the brain,” explains Silber. “Unfortunately, foods that cause weight gain are often the foods that trigger the release of these chemicals and that’s why we reach for them when we’re under stress.”
Not only can comfort food quickly lead to binge-eating, but if you are an emotional eater in general, stress can easily trigger a binge. Silber illustrates why, “With emotional eating we eat to soothe, calm, numb and relax from our problems or our pain. We self medicate and food is simply the drug of choice. Of course, we know what happens the minute we're done with that binge. We feel guilty, feel frustrated that this is the way that we've chosen to make ourselves feel better, but this is the system that we've chosen.” This technique does give temporary relief, and if emotional eating is a common occurrence for you, it is enough to trigger binge eating.