Stress & Health
What is the relationship between high levels of stress and becoming overweight? A simple explanation is that one (not ideal) way that some people cope with stress is by eating. Whether eating more or not, some stressed individuals may seek “comfort food” in particular; foods which remind them of times when they felt nurtured and comforted.
Many comfort foods and food items people chose when stressed are often high in carbohydrates. The habit of eating those particular foods may be unconsciously reinforced by the fact that eating carbohydrates increases the level of serotonin in the brain which produces a feeling of calm.
This relationship between stress, eating and gaining weight is overdetermined; it is reinforced on multiple levels. It is not just the habit of eating more.
Stress impairs our ability to think clearly and make wise decisions. Stress weakens our abilities to resist temptation and it amplifies the reward seeking system in our brains. Stress sets the table for addiction.
Stress also causes the production of chemicals which, among other things, encourage more and fuller development of abdominal fat cells. This chemical reaction, in combination with more high calorie comfort or junk food, results in weight gain. This process can be avoided by either reducing stress or eating a healthier diet or by both.
Another thing that stress does is cause the release of the hormone cortisol.
Excessive or prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause the body to develop a decreased sensitivity to cortisol over time. This results in an inadequate ability to regulate the body’s inflammatory process.
Research has found that chronic inflammation is associated with an overall poor immune response, as well as with some specific health problems such as heart disease and depression. A recent study found that when anti-inflammatories are prescribed in conjunction with antidepressants, the response to treatment is improved.
Reducing stress now can have long lasting effects. A longitudinal study compared the levels of inflammation in two groups of 19 year olds. At age 11, one group had completed a seven week training program which helped them develop better ways to cope with stress; the other group did not have the training. The group which had the training eight years prior had less inflammation.