How Does Stress Affect Your Appetite?

Jun 06, 2018 by apost team

When you are under stress, you develop a strong appetite for high-calorie foods. During this time your brain and your body collaborate to encourage this behavior. Think back to the days following the 9/11 tragedy when you could not eat enough peanut butter, or the time you binged heavily on chocolate when nothing seemed to be going your way. These happenings are real; you crave rich foods when you experience an extended period of stress, and your brain and your body conspire to allow it to happen. 

This mind-body relationship might explain why atypical depression, in which sufferers gain weight, sleep and eat to excess, differs from standard depression where sufferers lose weight, lose their appetite, and suffer from insomnia. It may also be the reason weight gain results from the use of antidepressants. Researchers have found that you will seek out ice creams, chocolate, and napoleons because of how good they taste but also because your body is attempting to curb the overwhelming stress you are feeling. Your body knows it cannot deal with constant stress, food stores within easy reach or with subzero freezers.

This is an example of how the stress system jumps into action. If another car cuts you off on the freeway, you instinctively swerve your vehicle to avoid crashing into the offending car. Even though you succeed, for sometime after the event you feel jumpy, exhausted with your heart beating hard in your chest. 

When your brain experiences such danger, it communicates the body to release the cortisol hormone to prepare you to take self-preserving responses. You will experience a racing heart, increased alertness, blood vessels become narrowed and blood is shunted from normal processes like digestion and flows to fast-acting muscles. Your metabolism adjusts and energy flows quickly to the muscles for fast action. 

This stress response does not last long and the system will shut itself down. The cortisol stress hormone provides its own shut off valve by communicating with the brain to end the release of the hormone. 

Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco reported that chronic stress operates in a completely different manner as there is no automatic turn-off point. In chronic stress, stressors to the body will continue increasing the release of cortisol that results in increased anxiety, extreme alertness, vigilance, and anxiety. Depression often results from this series of chronic stress events. 

The stress circuit initiates a craving for satisfying energy producing, comfort foods such as sugar, fats chocolate and cream puffs. These foods build up your body’s energy reserves that would otherwise become depleted quickly during the prolonged anxiety of chronic stress. 

Norman Pecoraro, Ph.D., with the San Francisco team suggested that stress hormones function to transfer energy to where it is needed in the body. During chronic stress, the increasing levels of cortisol direct excess calories consumed to your abdominal area, where they are stored as fat. In the abdomen, fat is close to the liver for quick conversion to energy when needed. 

The deposited fat is critical to the chronic stress system that will communicate to the brain to terminate the body’s stress response. Pecoraro states that eating chocolate and cream puffs provides the body with the input it needs to reduce the stress hormone production, which lessens the depression and feelings of anxiety. It signals to the brain that the body has been refilled with energy-rich foods. 

Pecoraro is puzzled by the obesity side effect of antidepressant drugs. He wonders how mood enhancement actually occurs. Could it be due to the effect of serotonin on the brain or is it due to an increased appetite caused by the drugs? His conclusion is that it is a combination of a number of factors, not the less of which is feeding since you do not exist but for energy. 

It is a predicament since consumption of high-calorie foods make us function and feel better, it does not benefit our health long-term. The stress you experience today is not life or death stresses, but rather those stresses that deal with job security, a lover’s rejection that may last a long time and make us feel paralyzed. In these situations, your energy reserves will not be used up, because your oversized freezer or the pizza store in the neighborhood, addresses the constant need you have to relieve stress. You will continue to gain excess abdominal weight which is a significant risk factor for heart attacks and diabetes. 

Pecoraro explains that a 30-year stress system research by Mary Dallman, Ph.D., discovered the fat store's metabolic signals, which although performed on rats, are applicable to human beings. The research was documented in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 
In addition, Pecoraro believes the research sheds light on the difference between atypical depression and typical depression. They differ in how much chronic stress affects the defensive alerting system as opposed to the appetitive system.

He states "Atypical depression may be an attempt to self-medicate with food, to reduce the stress hormone output, with the unfortunate side effect of visceral obesity." A different approach to overcome chronic stress is to indulge in exercise, meditation, yoga, sex and hot baths. 

These activities activate the same brain pleasure centers that direct you to indulge in comfort foods. Using relaxation techniques early helps to diminish the feeling of stress from the onset. 
Pecoraro advises that you can effectively deal with chronic stress in the short term by eating and sleeping a little more to help calm you down, even if doing so may cause you to gain a few pounds. He also states "But seeking a long-term solution in comfort food—rather than fixing the source of the stress or your relationship to the source of the stress—is going to be bad for you." 

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Our content is created to the best of our knowledge, yet it is of general nature and cannot in any way substitute an individual consultation with your doctor. Your health is important to us!