Stress Eating and the Cortisol Connection
A hormone might spike cravings for certain foods when you're under chronic stress.

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Stress Eating and the Cortisol Connection

Have you ever found yourself digging into a tub of ice cream after a long, stressful day? If so, you're not alone. Many people crave fatty, sugary foods when stressed.

You likely know it's an unhealthy choice to give in to these cravings. But you may not know that a hormone might play a small role in your emotional eating.

Stress eating and cortisol
When you're stressed, your body responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones. One of these hormones is called cortisol.

Cortisol gives your body more energy so you can run from danger - part of the body's natural "fight or flight" response meant to protect you from predators. While these days it's unlikely that you'll encounter any lions as our ancient ancestors did, your body still prepares you to run or fight when stressed. But when you constantly feel threatened, your body's natural stress response stays on, which can cause problems.

According to some studies on animal subjects, cortisol may increase appetite and possibly even the motivation to eat. But a direct connection between cortisol and stress eating hasn't been established.

We do know one thing for sure: The fatty, sugary foods we tend to eat when stressed can contribute to weight gain. Over time, too much weight is linked to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

Managing chronic stress
Whether cortisol could play a small role in stress eating or no role at all, what's important is learning to manage long-term stress. Try these steps to prevent or cut down on stress:

  1. Plan. Don't let big issues pile up. Do the most important things first. Make a list if it helps. Be kind to yourself if you cannot accomplish every task every day.
  2. Prepare. If you have a stressful event or conversation coming up, try to picture a positive outcome. Practice what you will say.
  3. Breathe. It may sound silly, but deep-breathing techniques can relieve stress. Or find a few quiet minutes to meditate each day.
  4. Relax. When you're feeling stress, your muscles get stressed, too. Try gentle stretching exercises (even at work!) to keep your body limber.
  5. Get moving. Physical activity can improve your mood and might even give you fresh perspectives. Go for a long walk to try to work through your problems.
  6. Eat healthy foods. Turn to nutrition from fruits, vegetables and lean proteins - not that tub of ice cream! And eat only when truly hungry.
  7. Avoid alcohol. It doesn't solve anything and can lead to more stress. If you choose to drink, limit your intake to one drink a day for women, two for men.
  8. Seek support. Talk with trusted friends and family members. Seek professional help if the stress just won't go away.
By Lucy M. Casale, Contributing Writer
Created on 08/08/2008
Updated on 08/13/2014
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What are the health risks of overweight and obesity?
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Limit fat and sugar.
  • Manage stress.
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