Stress and Hunger

Stress can often feel very similar to hunger. Think of a time when you were acutely hungry and the last time you were highly stressed, or felt any anxiety. Like most people you might likely report feeling a physical sensation and discomfort in your stomach region, may feel irritable, light headed, a bit jittery, your heart rate can fluctuate up or down or even get mild headaches. Not only can these two sensations feel the same, the stress response, or the cortisol (stress hormone) reaction, when triggered on a lesser level will often be interpreted as hunger and can drive people to eat.

The catch is that you can calm these hunger/stress sensations and symptoms by eating. Just know handling things this way has a very high price. Many people, when they start to feel the effects of stress begin to look for food. They mistakenly feed their false hunger, their stress reaction to feel better and basically start a cycle of self medicating with food.

Our stress hormone, cortisol, has a very tight relationship with insulin, or the hormone that controls how we feed the cells of our body and gain body fat. When these two powerful hormones team up it can be very hard to tell them apart and they can compound your urge to eat to silence them.

So what does that cycle look like? Stress creates a cortisol reaction, you think it is hunger, you eat, and you feel better. When you eat, you raise insulin, insulin and cortisol gang up, you get both a stress response and drive insulin resistance, making you hungry again. One can drive the other pushing you to not only eat, but crave the lowest quality, easiest hit of food energy you can get in the form of sugar, grains and processed carbs. Which in turn produce free radicals that trigger cortisol and raise insulin and promote insulin resistance and weight gain.

This process and cycle is particularly powerful when you suffer from poor quality sleep. Just one night of disturbed sleep will increase insulin resistance as well as raise cortisol levels, fueling these high powered processed food cravings, and lead to a near universal over-eating at each meal the following day….if you don’t know how to break the cycle that is.

When ever you feel junk food cravings or believe you are hungry at a time that doesn’t seem to fit your eating patterns, the first thing you can do is take a 8-10 minute leisurely walk. Random cravings and off eating time hunger can easily be a stress reaction from cortisol in disguise. Historically, when we triggered our stress hormone cortisol it was followed by physical action to fight or flee. In today’s world we trigger our stress reaction all day long and don’t move our body to dissipate those hormones and they can build up and run havoc on our health, energy levels, weight, and mood. Studies show that just taking a slow walk for around ten minutes can effectively help burn those stress hormones out of our system, reduce insulin resistance, satisfy our false hunger and cravings without food, as well as keep our mind sharp and anxiety low.

Walking and breathing are about as fundamental to our life experience as anything. Don’t let these seemingly, “too easy,” stress and hunger crushing mechanisms go to waste. Your mood, tension levels and belt line will thank you for it!

Dr. Don

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