Stress Cravings ≠ Bad Willpower
Stress: We all have it. Whether physical (lack of sleep, intense workouts, travel), mental (anxiety, perfection, long work hours), emotional (anger, fear, loneliness), chemical (drugs, alcohol, pollution), nutritional (food allergies, nutritional deficiencies), social (poor relationships, lack of spirituality), or traumatic (injury, illness, infection), stress has become a common, almost “natural,” part of life. In fact, just like so many things that are common, we have come to normalize stress and this has created a culture of somewhat ignoring what it is doing to us. For some, stress has even become like a badge of honor, as if the level of stress in one’s life reflects the importance of that life. This is dangerous territory, because stress, although common, is an invisible, powerful and underestimated threat in our lives. As it relates to our nutritional status, stress cuts against us in a variety of ways.
How many times when you’re under some form of stress do your food choices become less than optimal? When we’re stressed we feel cranky, tired, unfocused, and pretty dang irritable. Nine times out of ten, in this frame of mind we reach for food dominated by sugar, salt and fried things, and we tell ourselves it’s just low willpower or even necessity due to our lack of time, short-fuses, anxiety and being overworked – aka, stress. But what if I told you that’s not exactly true? Yes, our brain is signaling us, but not from a place of weakness that says “eat all the crap” but rather from an imbalance triggered by a chemical cascade due to our stress.
Any sort of stress (including the anticipation of stress) triggers our adrenal glands to pump out the hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals signal the body to raise blood sugar (glucose) thereby generating sufficient energy needed to respond to the stress. Lower level chronic stressors (for example, lack of sleep) rely just on cortisol, and this equates to consistently elevated blood sugar in our system which enables us to spring into action as needed. A true emergency or a strong emotional response like fear or anger will involve not only cortisol but epinephrine (adrenaline) which turns the cortisol response up several decibels and puts us on “high alert.”.
This adrenal response is handled by the sympathetic branch of the brain’s autonomic nervous system (previously discussed HERE). Problems arise when, due to non-stop stress, we get “stuck” in that sympathetic state long-term, and our adrenal function is having to constantly work and work (aka, it goes into “hyper”-mode, think of people you know who are always amped up and ready to go!). When someone continues in a chronically hyper-adrenalized state for too long their stress response will eventually go the opposite way and become dysfunctional or depleted (low or hypo-functioning). This results in either falling cortisol production or in “cortisol resistance”, a physical state in which our cells stop listening to cortisol, tricking our body into thinking we don’t have enough of it. People in this hypo-adrenic state end up “crashing” and feel totally exhausted most of the time.
If, because of excess or chronic stress, the body cannot meet this constant higher demand for blood glucose, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) will result. In addition, over time the blood sugar response provoked by stress will have a cumulative effect on the body’s ability to maintain blood sugar balance (think spikes and crashes), thereby aggravating hypoglycemic symptoms. In fact, some of the symptoms of low blood sugar, such as irritability and nervousness, may sometimes be the effects of high levels of stress hormones rather than of the low blood sugar itself. How does our body respond? By craving something, anything, that will get our energy up quick!
For this reason, it should be no surprise that rampant stresses like worry and overwork trigger cravings that lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits such as:
- Drinking Too Much Coffee
- Eating De-Natured Foods high in Fat, Sugar and Salt
- Skipping Meals
- Munching Mindlessly
- Forgetting Water
- Going for Fast Food
- Crash Dieting
The results of these nutritional choices? Unstable energy, mood swings, fatigue, poor concentration, diminished performance, sleep disruption and immune system dysfunction, in other words, MORE STRESS. Not surprisingly, in the long run, by exacerbating our bodies’ stress, we put ourselves at risk of developing a range of chronic illnesses – from the common cold to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sadly, when our bodies are poorly fed, stress takes an even greater toll on our health. For this reason, it should be fairly obvious how stress → bad habits = harmful cycle.
But did you know that Nutrition and Stress are deeply intertwined in another way?
Multiple studies have shown that stress can actually undermine a very good diet, even one full of healthy and nourishing foods. In fact, when diet is held constant, people with higher stress had higher levels of inflammation, increased blood pressure and metabolic dysfunction – all precursors to diabetes, autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular disease – than those who ate the same food but were experiencing low to no stress. Yes, that means that the chronic stress in your life has the potential to negate benefits from the most nutrient-dense diet and be far more damaging to your health than that serving of fries that you had this weekend. In other words, even if you conquer your cravings with healthy food, your stress is doing more harm than your diet is doing good.
While stress may be a fact of life, how we handle it can make all the difference. Too often people turn to alcohol, sweets, television, coffee and/or cigarettes to “manage” stress but none of this addresses the cortisol and other internal demands of our stress. In fact, if we are not doing things to regularly mop up cortisol in our body, it just keeps circulating and circulating which makes relaxation (and digestion!!) nearly impossible.
Clearly, no matter what your diet may be, stress management needs to be part of your life. Consider things like:
- simple movement, stretch, walk, hike
- going to the gym
- being social with friends
- having creative outlets
- practicing yoga
- deep breathing
- meditation and prayer
All of these tools can serve to reduce the effects of stress in our everyday life. When we incorporate any of these things, our mood improves, our immune system gets a boost, our productivity is increased, and our longevity is extended. For this reason, along with eating well and sleeping adequately, managing your stress in whatever way you choose, is vital for a well and wisely nourished life.