The model of weight gain that most people are familiar with has to do with consuming too many calories. This model is still relevant for us when we talk about stress, but stress adds a twist to this. When we are under stress, especially prolonged stress (physical, emotional or environmental) our body's chemistry is changed. This change leads to unhealthy cravings for sweet and salty foods.
Why Salty and Sweet?
Modern humans have come up with new and unique ways of stressing themselves out. In the past, major stressors consisted of events such as food shortage, illness, pregnancy/child rearing, physical work, exposure to the elements and war. These events typically were not everyday experiences and our response was straightforward. Also, these events ended and we had time to recover. This is in addition to the fact that people in the past were very physically active.
Today we have traffic, cell phones, deadlines, noise pollution, picking the children up from school, degenerative diseases, loneliness, depression, war without end and each other to stress over. Physically we are not adapted to deal with all of this daily stress. Add to that, the fact that many people today are physically inactive and have poor diets and this is nothing less than a recipe for an expanding waistline.
Instead of reducing stressors, using stress reducing techniques or changing our response to stress (reframing), the tendency is to keep going and to self medicate using food. But why food?
The adrenal glands are responsible for our ability to adapt and cope with stress, but when we over burden them, they want a pick me up. Salt feeds the adrenal glands and sugar whips them (as does caffeine). These foods are the whip and the adrenal glands are the horse. This will keep a person going for a while, but these food cravings and the body's own chemistry will not only cause weight gain, but it can also cause all types of health issues as well.
Adrenaline, Cortisol and Serotonin
|Adrenaline does not last long in the body and we quickly feel the "crash" after a "rush". This is when the food cravings set in.|
Along with the production of adrenaline, the body will also produce cortisol. Slow acting cortisol can cause the most trouble. Adrenaline does not last long in the body and we quickly feel the "crash" after a "rush". This is when the food cravings set in.
The over abundance of cortisol can cause havoc on our blood sugar levels and can even contribute to causing diabetes. Also, the longer this process goes on, the harder it will be for the body to recover from this "rush" and "crash" cycle.
The other player in this scenario is serotonin. This neuro-transmitter works in the brain to keep our mood elevated. A common side effect of low serotonin is depression. Serotonin also helps us cope with stress, but can easily become depleted when we are under prolonged stress.
We need to replenish our supplies of serotonin from our diet, so if our diet is low in serotonin abundant foods and high in stress, sugar is a substitute, although a poor and short lived one. A lack of serotonin can cause food cravings. There are also people that do not produce enough serotonin.
What Can You Do?
- Eat before you are hungry
You can accomplish this by snacking on healthy foods. It is difficult to curb cravings when you are hungry. Once you reach the level of hunger, you are more likely to grab the easiest thing than the right type of food.
- Snack on healthy foods
A good snack contains a protein, a fat and a complex carbohydrate (whole grain). It can be cheese and crackers, celery and nut butter (almond, peanut, or cashew), or a bowl of yogurt with fruit and nuts. Have an afternoon and a morning snack.
- Eat foods rich in tryptophan (converts to serotonin)
Tryptophan is an amino acid (found in protein foods). To boost your levels, eat protein rich foods like chicken, turkey, nuts, cheeses and beans.
- Eat at regular times
Just like us, our bodies do better on a regular schedule. Have your breakfast within an hour of waking up. Have your lunch between 12-1 p.m. and dinner before 6 p.m.
- Drink Water
Stress is a dehydrating experience. Most people under stress also drink large amounts of coffee, tea and soda, all of which are diuretics and add to the body’s need for more water.
- Choose whole grains
Whole Grains help regulate the blood sugar, keep us full longer and provide us with long lasting fuel for our brain and body. They also contain high amounts of the B vitamins that are quickly depleted in times of stress. The B vitamins help us cope with stress better.
- Do not bring sweets into the house
If you don’t have them, you can’t eat them-problem solved. If you find yourself making special trips to the store to satisfy your sweet tooth, then you know you have a problem with sugar.
- Sleep and rest
During times of stress, your body needs time to rest and recover. Stress can drain you physically, mentally and emotionally. Depending on the individual, the amount of sleep and rest required will vary.
Exercise does not necessarily mean a physically strenuous activity. Over doing exercise is also a stressor. You be the judge on what type of exercise you find enjoyable and you can also consult with a physical trainer.
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