One of the times I used to eat a lot of sugary food is when I was stressed out. If you think stress eating helps you feel better, that could be because of your hormonal response to stress. This is for multiple reasons, in this post I’m going to focus on the hormone cortisol.
Your Cortisol Levels When You’re Stressed Out
When you’re stressed out your cortisol levels rise, this is part of the flight or fight response you may have heard of before. This is a helpful response when a lion is trying to eat you, but less helpful when you’re in a less urgent stressful situation like your boss is being irrational.
The increase in cortisol levels will lead to an increase in your blood sugar levels. Some studies show that eating fatty and sugary foods does seem to tone down the response your body has to stress. This could be why it’s your go-to option when you’re stressed out.
It’s important to realize this because you may think your stress eating has something to do with self-control or discipline. But actually, it may have to do with your body’s normal response to stress. Dealing with this instead may help you better manage your stress eating and help you lose weight.
This advice is based on the assumption you don’t have any medical problems that affect your cortisol levels. This includes sleep problems which can throw off your cortisol levels. If you do have sleep problems, you should address this with your doctor or a sleep doctor first.
What Can You Do About Your Body’s Response to Stress?
The obvious thing to do is to stop doing the thing that makes you stressed out in the first place. However, this frequently isn’t feasible if it’s something like your job that’s making your stressed out. Ironically your job may pay for the stress eating your job is causing.
The next thing to look at is what you can do to try and stabilize your cortisol stress response so that you don’t start stress eating. The medical studies on this are limited, but I’m going to talk about a few possible options.
Can You Eat Anything to Decrease Your Stress Cortisol Levels?
In my research, the best options to consider trying are eating a small piece of dark chocolate daily or drinking a cup of black tea every day to try to decrease your cortisol stress response when you’re under stress later in the day. The medical data on this is not very strong. You could try it for one month and see if it works to decrease how stressed out you feel. If it doesn’t work after a month, move on to something else.
If you’re already stressed out you should try not to stress eat, but if you do it’s better if you stress eat low glycemic index carbs or low-fat protein. This is because being stressed out will increase your blood sugar levels and if you eat sugary foods on top of that, it can cause you to gain weight. In addition long term it can lead to problems with your blood sugar (glucose) – insulin regulation. If you’re stress eating sugary foods regularly, it will make it harder for you to lose weight long term too, even once you stop stress eating sugary foods.
Exercise and the Type of Exercise You Do
Exercise is generally thought to decrease stress levels for a variety of reasons. Exercise will initially increase your cortisol levels. But long-term regular exercise will help keep your cortisol levels lower later in the day and at night. So exercising can help you from becoming stressed out throughout the day, and that can help make you less likely to stress eat.
One thing to consider is that the type of exercise you do may make a difference. If you started exercising but don’t feel like it’s helping you feel less stressed out, consider testing out different types of exercise. Some studies show that different intensity exercises (low versus medium versus high) will have different effects on your cortisol levels. Changing the intensity of your exercise may help you get less stressed out and help prevent you from stress eating.
Meditation and Mindful Thinking
Meditation and mindful thinking can also potentially help decrease your cortisol stress response and cortisol levels. Learning how to meditate can take a while, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll need to make it a routine part of your day so that eventually you practice mindful thinking automatically when you’re in stressful situations.
If you’ve never meditated before, you can try learning by using apps like Calm and Headspace (I use both of them). Another great way to get into mindful thinking is starting with yoga classes first. Start with more of a flow or Vinyasa type of yoga, which has mindful thinking built into it.