Aaron Chy, BSc General, PharmD Student
At what point did life become so stressful? Growing up, being an adult seemed like the best thing you could ask for – the freedom to go where you wanted, do what you wanted, at any time you pleased. Fast forward to today, and you’ve got work, family, commitments, and demands that just never seem to end. Too often, it feels like there’s just not enough time in the day; multiply that by five days a week (or more), and it’s no surprise that, sometimes, a long nap and some good food provide the much needed light at the end of the tunnel. After all, who could blame you?
We certainly can’t. It’s simple enough: when we’re feeling low, we want to treat ourselves to something positive. It’s completely normal, healthy, and it’s called coping. Needless to say, different people have different methods of coping, and that’s perfectly fine. That said, of course, the struggle occurs when our coping methods aren’t necessarily the best thing for us or our bodies in the long term. On one hand, hitting the gym, listening to music, or just going for a walk are great methods for stress relief. On the other, diving into a tub of ice cream or a box of cookies can provide similar levels of comfort. However, take it a bit too far and soon enough you’ll have a whole new pile of problems to deal with.
In fact, the tendency to snack, or even to binge, has led many to coin the term “stress eating.” Interestingly enough though, the connection between stress and eating may be more than just psychological, and understanding that could be important to finding better, healthier ways to take care of your mental and physical health.
Eating Away Your Feelings: The Root Cause of Stress-Eating
When we experience stress, our entire body’s hormonal system kicks into gear as part of the “fight or flight” response. Hormones called glucocorticoids are released into the system in large amounts, with cortisol being the best-known example of stress-associated hormones. What do these hormones do? They prepare our bodies to respond to stress, or deal with problems, by making us more alert and mobilizing stored energy. Interestingly enough, ghrelin, a hormone which promotes hunger and eating, is increased during stress and may provide a calming or anti-depressant effect.1 Unfortunately, the benefits of the body’s stress response comes at a price; long-term or repeated exposure to cortisol is associated with negative outcomes like weight gain, high blood sugar, and weakened bone strength.2 This, combined with ghrelin’s effect of increasing appetite, sets the stage for weight gain in people living high-stress lifestyles.
One study found that people were more likely to eat unhealthy foods while avoiding healthier choices after they’ve had a rough day at work, namely being mistreated by rude or demanding clientele. The relationship was quite clear: the worse a person’s day was in the morning, the worse they ate when they got home at night. This is probably no surprise to anyone – it’s safe to say that at one point or another, we’ve all treated ourselves to some comfort food as a pick-me-up. But it’s specifically been found that eating sweet, sugary foods leads to a decrease in stress hormones. Unfortunately, this effect doesn’t occur with artificially sweetened, low-calorie foods.2
By now, you may be reading this and starting to feel like the odds are stacked against you. If stress leads to over-eating, which leads to weight gain, which leads to more stress, it’s a vicious cycle. Fortunately, researchers found that one simple thing helped reduce the effect of stress on over-eating: sleep.
The same study that found stress lead to unhealthier eating also found that having a good night’s rest directly reduced poor eating habits. The main explanation was that a good night’s sleep simply gave individuals more energy, and, therefore, an improved ability to handle problems at work without taking them too personally. Of course, this all ties into the concept of self-care, and how taking care of yourself regularly has a myriad of benefits. The following are a few easy tips to help keep you in tip-top shape.
- Proper sleep hygiene is essential. What does that mean? It means keeping a consistent, regular sleep schedule. Avoiding brightly-lit screens and monitors at night can help your body prepare for sleep, and doing your best to wake up at the same time every day (including your days off) helps optimize sleep function.
- Exercise regularly. Adding a workout to your daily routine has obvious benefits for weight loss and overall health. But more importantly, regular physical activity can help you sleep better by the end of the night and reduce feelings of stress through the release of endorphin-like chemicals in the brain.
- De-stress with hobbies or meditation. As much as it may feel like it at times, we weren’t meant to spend our entire lives working. Although it can be hard, detaching ourselves from our responsibilities to refresh our minds and gain back some headspace is incredibly important. It may seem hard at first, but relaxing and fulfilling activities are key to keeping us motivated, sharp, and all the more capable to handle the challenges of our daily lives.
What can you take away from all this? It all boils down to the same bottom line at the end of the day: getting the right amount of rest, and understanding the right ways to take care of yourself.
As always, we hope you took away something valuable from this piece. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this article or others, feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook, or at email@example.com with your feedback. We’d love to hear from you.
- Mani, B., Mani, B. K., & Zigman, J. M. (n.d). Ghrelin as a Survival Hormone. Trends In Endocrinology And Metabolism, 28(12), 843-854.
- Ulrich-Lai, Y. M. (2016). Self-medication with sucrose. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 9, 78–83. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.02.015
- Liu, Y., Song, Y., Wang, M., Koopmann, J., Chang, C. (., & Shi, J. (n.d). Eating Your Feelings? Testing a Model of Employees’ Work-Related Stressors, Sleep Quality, and Unhealthy Eating. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 102(8), 1237-1258.