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Stress and Eating

How stressed you are now and, more importantly, how stressed you were growing up, may be at the root of your eating difficulties. By stress I mean the affective recognition of feeling internal pressure along with its physical manifestations in your body. If your childhood included chronic neglect or abuse—sexual, physical, or emotional harming such as shaming, degrading, living with constant fighting, witnessing abuse, and feeling scared and helpless much of the time—you may have a compromised stress response.

Stress generates a two-part response to physical or emotional threat to self. The perception of or an actual threat triggers part one, an alert in midbrain that signals the release of chemicals such as norepinephrine and adrenaline and in your adrenal glands that elevates heart rate, blood pressure and breathing to prepare you for action. Other body-readiness activities also occur, including the release of glucose and fatty acids as fuel for fight or flight. Perceptions sharpen, the brain’s ability to form new memories increases, and sensitivity to pain decreases. If the crisis worsens or persists, the adrenal glands then release cortisol, a long-acting stress hormone which directs glucose to muscles and away from the brain, reducing learning and memory formation.

In part two of the response, when the threat is over, the nervous system gradually returns to normal by releasing chemicals to end the alert. Because of the long-term effects of increased cortisol and adrenaline, however, chronic stress can cause the body to have trouble shutting off the stress response. And, when chemicals continue to be released long after they’re needed, they hinder the ability to learn and remember. Eventually your ability to recover from stress becomes damaged and less effective. And that’s where food comes in. Because your body is unable to manage stress effectively on a biological level, ie, the stress response doesn’t shut off as it should, you turn elsewhere—often to food—to trick your brain into soothing and contain distressing feelings. Foods such as carbohydrates have a special allure they trigger a release of dopamine in your brain which makes you feel better.

However, take heart, you can retrain your brain to respond to stress more effectively by changing your thoughts and putting threats into perspective, by exercising rather than eating (exercise also triggers the release of mood-improving chemicals), by making sure you get enough sleep and time to relax, by learning healthy self-soothing techniques, and by avoiding stressful situations whenever you can. A tall order? Perhaps. But if stress is a problem, it’s time to find a solution other than food.