We’ve all had those weeks where crazy amounts of stress leave us soothing our woes with late-night ice cream binges. But before your shame-spiral over your lack of self-control, weak willpower isn’t the only thing at blame in these scenarios.
Meet the stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for your body’s “fight or flight” mechanism (more on that later). It’s been called public health enemy number one for its link to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, memory loss and more. And it might be responsible for weight gain and throwing your eating habits off the rails, too. Here’s how cortisol might be messing with your body — and what you can do about it.
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Fight or Flight: What Is Cortisol?
Imagine this: You’re driving along in your car and you almost get into an accident. As your tires screech, your body activates its fight or flight response, preparing to protect yourself from harm. The hypothalamus region of the brain, responsible for triggering this response, sends messages to the adrenal glands telling them to release cortisol and adrenaline. This causes the liver to release sugar into the bloodstream and increase blood flow to the heart, increasing heart rate, explains Jen Landa, MD, chief medical officer of BodyLogicMD, a group of physicians specializing in bioidentical hormone therapy.
“Your body sees a skipped meal and low blood sugar as a mini emergency.”
“When you get in a car accident, you need a high amount of sugar in your bloodstream in case you need to lift a car off your companion,” says Landa. “But the problem is that many are living at 80 percent ‘car accident’ [mode] all the time, and having a stress response going on chronically becomes dysfunctional.” This response is helpful for dealing with short-term crises, but in today’s culture where many people feel stressed out all-day-every-day, this constant fight or flight response can spell trouble.
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Cortisol vs. Your Waistline
It’s not just obvious daily stressors — like your boss nagging you all day — that elevate your levels. Lack of sleep, caffeine, alcohol and even skipping a meal can all raise cortisol, Landa says. “Your body sees a skipped meal and low blood sugar as a mini emergency,” she says.
Research shows that high cortisol levels may be to blame for stress eating, with one study finding that women ate more on days they were stressed out than on days they weren’t (especially sweets). That’s because the sugar-release triggered by elevated cortisol doesn’t enter the cells for energy, but instead stays in the bloodstream, says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Jennifer McDaniel, RD, who specializes in weight management. “This disrupted system increases hunger signals to the brain, leading to an increased appetite for high-calorie foods,” she says.
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Stress eating is just one way this hormone messes with your weight. Elevated cortisol levels also cause fat to be de deposited deep in the abdomen, which can lead to obesity or weight gain, says McDaniel. This visceral fat, or fat stored around the organs, produces more cortisol compared to other types of fat tissue, she says, which could help explain why it’s so easy to gain weight, but so hard to lose it.
6 Ways to Fight Back Against Stress Eating
Stress and cortisol don’t have to wreck your diet. These simple tricks can help keep your levels in check — and help you feel better all over.
1. Eat anti-inflammatory foods.
McDaniel encourages her clients to consume a variety of nine servings of fruits and vegetables and two to three servings of fatty fish per week, plus fiber-rich foods like beans and nuts (Here’s what 200 calories of nuts looks like). “What we avoid is important as well,” she says. Reduce or skip pro-inflammatory foods like trans fats, alcohol, refined or processed grains and sugar-rich foods.
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2. When cravings hit, do something different.
Most cravings are part of a habit cycle, says Landa. Luckily, habits can be changed if you alter your response to stimuli. “When you’re stressed out, instead of reaching for a candy bar, reach for a cup of relaxing herbal tea, which will help [calm] you and keep your mouth and hands busy to avoid unnecessary snacking,” she says.
There are many reasons to get your ‘om on. But researchers in Thailand found that medical students who participated in mindfulness meditation, a practice of focusing on the present moment, had significantly lower cortisol levels after just four days of the program. If you’re new to the practice, here are some easy tricks to help you meditate (even if you’re really impatient).
4. Put a barrier between food and an emotion.
If you usually eat when you’re stressed, try grabbing a glass of water, calling a friend, getting out of the house or making some tea instead. “A 15-minute distractor is usually able to reroute an emotional food binge,” says McDaniel.
5. Get outside.
Access to green space can significantly lower self-reported stress and cortisol levels, according to Scottish researchers. Just another reason to unplug and spend some time outdoors.
6. Create space for yourself.
If you’re constantly putting the needs of something else (work, friends, family, you name it) in front of your own, you won’t have enough resources left to handle your own stress. Instead, carve out some time that’s just yours. “One of the techniques I personally use is powering down while eating and just eating,” says McDaniel. “When I do this, I often find my mind goes to a place of gratitude for my food, or mind-centering places. This pause rejuvenates a working mother of two toddlers with one on the way.”