How stress can affect our appetite

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

I'm writing this post having demolished an unusual amount of food today, I've had my main meals, I've snacked, I swapped my roast veggies lunch for a sandwich and crisps and I know exactly the reason why; I'm stressed.

I'm sure being stressed is a feeling that we can all relate to in some way, shape or form but we might not know exactly what the science is behind stress and why it can make us feel the way it does. Over the years I've become very familiar with the physical symptoms of stress for me, I start to feel 'run-down' which is very similar to the feeling you get a day or two before you're hit with a bad cold. My skin flares up and one or two angry zits are definitely not uncommon, I suffer with occasional mouth ulcers and just generally looking worn out and tired constantly, despite getting maybe 7/8 hours sleep each night.

One of the most prominent symptoms of stress for me personally though is a change in my appetite. I can eat anything and everything when I feel stressed or anxious for a long period of time and that's what I wanted to discuss in today's post.

Why does stress affect our appetite?

You might be familiar with the term 'flight or fight' - that's the mode our bodies go into when we're stressed. Our brain's take the wheel when we're in this mode and it decides what we need to do next in order to survive - imagine back in the day our ancestors way back when would be hunting for their dinner and a hyena or big cat would appear. Our brains send a message to our adrenal glands to pump out adrenalin which is intended to kick our butts into gear.

This whole process that our bodies do for us can put our appetite on hold - and rightly so - if you're faced by a lion then using up energy on normal bodily functions such as digestion go on hold and energy is used elsewhere to either fight the threat or run.

Now, when we continue to be stressed and it's not just a one-off situation - or our bodies at least think we are stressed - then something slightly different happens. The same adrenal glands as before now pump out a hormone called cortisol and cortisol increases our appetite and the motivation to eat.

It's this unfortunate connection between stress & our appetites which can lead to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes - as increased cortisol levels also spur on an increase in our insulin production & glucose which ultimately can raise our blood sugar levels.

Why do we rarely crave a salad or plate of veggies when we're stressed?

I know there might be some exceptions to this rule BUT I for one definitely don't want to reach for particularly healthy foods when I've been feeling stressed for a while. For me, I want bread, chocolate and crisps. Living the dream!

It's good old cortisol again that's to blame for the cravings some of us experience when we're stressed. High sugar, fatty foods give our bodies energy and that's exactly what it thinks we need when we're in 'fight or flight' mode so that's the signals it sends to our brain.

So how can we tackle overeating when we're stressed?

The best thing to do would be to make sure our stress levels never get so high that we put our bodies into 'fight or flight' mode but that is so much easier than done and sometimes life throws things at us that we can't see coming.

Try to stay mindful of what triggers your stress and be wary of the signs your body may be giving you ahead of time, if you're starting to feel run-down, burnt out or on edge then begin to take some extra measures in self-care and looking after yourself.

 Keeping some healthier (notice I didn't say healthy) snacks on hand when you're going through a particularly rough time can be a good idea. For example, today I should have thought about the way i was feeling and made myself a lunch that was maybe a little more appealing like a nice bowl of pasta or a homemade sandwich or wrap.  I brought my bowl of leftover veggies to work with the best intentions! Some chocolate rice cakes, trail mix or apple slices & peanut butter are all comforting treats that will hopefully satisfy your cravings.

Above all, don't be hard on yourself. You're already feeling stressed so don't add to that by worrying too much about what you're eating in the short term, if your feelings of stress persist and your eating habits change more long-term then always speak to your GP or a specialist.

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