It’s been another hectic day. On impulse, you grab an extra-large candy bar during your afternoon break. You plan to take just a few bites. But before you know it, you’ve polished off the whole thing — and, at least temporarily, you may feel better. Rest assured you’re not alone. Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. A structure in the brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. The brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists — or is perceived as persisting — it’s a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away — or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position — cortisol may stay elevated.
Stress and cravings
According to Harvard Health, stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a role.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. So part of our stress-induced craving for those foods may be that they counteract stress.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to becoming overweight.
But the question remains, is there a stress management diet?
Stress management can be a powerful tool for wellness, since too much stress is bad for you. There are many strategies, and one of them includes what you eat. Foods can help tame stress in several ways. Comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can cut levels of cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that take a toll on the body over time. A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Here are a few:
All carbs prompt the brain to make more serotonin. For a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it’s best to eat complex carbs, which take longer to digest. Good choices include whole-grain breads, brown rice pastas, and good old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
Oranges make the list for their wealth of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. In one study of people with high blood pressure, blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) returned to normal more quickly when people took vitamin C before a stressful task.
Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach helps you stock back up on magnesium. Don’t like spinach? Other green, leafy vegetables are good magnesium sources. Or try some cooked soybeans or a fillet of salmon, also high in magnesium.
To keep stress in check, make friends with naturally fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish such as salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and may help protect against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). For a steady supply of feel-good omega-3s, aim to eat 3 ounces of fatty fish at least twice a week.
Drinking black tea may help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank 4 cups of tea daily for 6 weeks with people who drank another beverage. The tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after stressful situations.
Pistachios and Almonds
Pistachios, as well as other nuts and seeds, are good sources of healthy fats. Eating a handful of pistachios, walnuts, or almonds every day may help lower your cholesterol, ease inflammation in your heart’s arteries, make diabetes less likely, and protect you against the effects of stress. Almonds are chock-full of helpful vitamins: vitamin E to bolster the immune system, plus B vitamins, which may make you more resilient during bouts of stress or depression. To get the benefits, snack on a quarter of a cup every day. Don’t overdo it, though: Nuts are rich in calories.
One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium, and half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. A little bit of guacamole, made from avocado, might be a good choice when stress has you craving a high-fat treat. Avocados are high in fat and calories, though, so watch your portion size.
Crunchy raw vegetables can help ease stress in a purely mechanical way. Munching celery or carrot sticks helps release a clenched jaw, and that can ward off tension.
Another bedtime stress buster is the time-honored glass of warm milk (almond, soy, or rice). Research shows that calcium eases anxiety and mood swings linked to PMS.
Now how do we de-stress with exercise?
Besides changing your diet, one of the best stress-busting strategies is to start exercising. Cardio exercise boosts oxygen circulation and spurs your body to make feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week.
And to relax…engage in these 3 yoga poses to help de-stress your body as well as your mind.