You sleep through your alarm and run out the door late, only to sit in traffic that’s moving at a snail’s pace. Your day gets even more stressful as you work to meet an important deadline.
Preparing dinner and helping the kids with homework means there’s no rest for the weary at home, either. By the end of the night, without giving it a second thought, you grab that unopened pint of ice cream hidden in the back of the freezer. And before you know it, the carton is empty.
How in the world did you inhale it so fast? And more importantly, WHY?!
Scenarios like this have happened to all of us. Mounting stress often causes us to reach for a bag of chips, ice cream, cake, pie or some other indulgent junk food that we crave. This is often referred to as “stress eating” and is a very real phenomenon. And now researchers have discovered how and why it happens.
What’s Fat Got to Do With It?
Contrary to popular belief, cravings and stress eating aren’t caused by lack of self-control or willpower. And they’re not “all in your head.” They’re actually a result of a communication loop that occurs between your fat cells and your brain.
That’s right—your body fat talks to your brain.
Here’s what happens: When you’re stressed, your body secretes hormones called glucocorticoids. Fat tissue contains glucocorticoid receptors, which receive messages from these hormones. These receptors can sense your level of stress, and in an effort to help you deal with it, “talk” to your brain about it.
The researchers note that this fat-to-brain feedback loop serves to “regulate not just homeostatic energy balance but also responses to psychogenic stimuli.” In essence, your body fat is, in part, controlling your psychological response to stress—and for many, one of those responses is to eat comfort food.
For our ancient ancestors, stress eating came in handy. The extra calories supplied extra energy for long, tense and strenuous hunts for food. But today’s stress is much different. The excess calories we consume are rarely burned, which ends up as weight gain.
Researchers aren’t clear what, if anything, can break this cycle. But one thing is clear: The key to beating cravings and putting an end to stress eating is to lower your stress levels.
If you find yourself dealing with chronic stress (and who doesn’t!), some excellent relaxation techniques include yoga, deep breathing, meditation, Tai Chi and visualization. You may even find comfort and learn good stress management tools by working with a professional counselor.
Several nutrients and herbs can also relieve stress and anxiety naturally. A few of the best options include:
GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that acts as a calming neurotransmitter. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that communicate information to the rest of the body.) GABA helps balance out excitatory neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, that get stirred up during times of stress.
L-theanine is an amino acid that plays a role in the creation of GABA. L-theanine promotes a sense of calm by stimulating the production of alpha waves, the brain waves associated with a relaxed state.
Ashwagandha is a popular herb in Ayurvedic medicine. A recent meta-analysis of five clinical trials concluded that this herb significantly improves anxiety.
Passionflower and chamomile. The easiest way to enjoy these mildly sedating herbs is to buy the dried leaves and make tea, and sip on it before bedtime.
In addition, you simply must exercise. Physical activity releases endorphins—your body’s own “feel-good” chemicals. It also improves circulation, stamina and endurance; promotes emotional grounding and stability and boosts energy. Find an activity you enjoy and do it at least five days a week, for at least 30 minutes.
Finally, consider keeping a food diary. Write down every single thing you put in your mouth, when you eat it, and how you are feeling at that point in time. Remember, even that one teeny tiny chocolate chip counts! After a few days of keeping this journal, you’ll likely be shocked by just how much you eat unconsciously—and it may help you stay more present and aware of your dietary habits.