In this article, we will discuss something we all experience at one point or another…STRESS! Nowadays, we tend to be overworked, overstimulated and overwhelmed. In 2018, a Statistic Canada survey demonstrated that 21% of population over the age of 12 perceived their life stress as being extremely high. Whatever your stress is related to, it can have an impact on your health (mental and physical) and on your eating behaviours. In this blog post we will explore what the effects of stress are on our nutrition and health and what we can do about it!
Our body always strives for balance (i.e. homeostasis). For example, our body has mechanism in place to keep our body temperature at 37 degrees (like sweating or shivering), our pH stable, electrolytes balance and so much more. Stress is defined as something that comes and disturbs our body’s homeostasis (1). Our bodies can be stressed right before an exam or when we don’t have enough money to pay rent, but it can also be stressed when we are fighting a cold or when we are hurt.
Our body has developed a great response to acute stress and uses the same mechanism to fight chronic stress which is not as effective (3). When we are stressed our body produces hormones called catecholamines (ex: adrenaline) and cortisol (2). These hormones tell our body to make energy available for the “fight or flight” response (2). These hormones also channel the energy towards the areas of the body that it thinks will be useful for “fight or flight” (arms, legs and brain for example) and diverts energy away from the other functions of the body deemed less useful, including the digestive system (2). Catecholamines (adrenaline) are only released on a short term basis in acute stress, cortisol on the other hand is released the whole time the body is under stress and is linked to many health issues (4).
The body’s response to stress varies between individuals, some people gain weight when they are stressed, others lose weight (3). Stress is linked to changes in eating habits. Some people will crave and eat more “comfort foods” that are high in fat and sugar. We tend to crave these foods because they provide us with the most energy (i.e. calories) which is what our thinks it needs to fight against stress (3). On the other hand, some people under high stress situations eat less, especially in acute stress situations (2). You know, those people who “forget” to eat when busy/stressed or simply do not feel hungry (I am definitely not one of them!). You may think it is a better response to stress as you are not adding on calories however once these people start eating normally again, they are more likely to gain weight (3).
Yes! Your body perceives stress as a threat (remember, your body does not know the difference between a bear ready to attack vs. a deadline for work/school) and cortisol is then release which leads to storing energy as fat (3, 4). Chronic stress is also linked to higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases (1).
Yes! In a stressful situation, your body wants to hold on to energy stores (i.e. fat and glucose stores) to fight against the stressors (again, your body wants to protect you and save energy for later use if needed). This coping mechanism prevents us from losing weight (5).
When we are stressed, the energy is taken away from the digestive system which can lead to stomach pain, bloating and discomfort (4). Stress is also linked to inflammatory bowel syndrome and diseases like Crohn’s disease and colitis (4).There is new research being done at the moment about the interaction between the microbiome and stress and the gut microbiome is affected by stress and how the microbiome can affect our stress and impact our food choices (6). To learn more about the microbiome, check out the last blog post on the gut microbiome.
Firstly, we want to make sure that nutrition is not the source of your stress or an added stressor. Here are some ways you can reduce your stress around eating:
Balance is key. Stick to your balanced meals and avoid skipping any meals while you are stressed. Stress can upset our stomachs so try to choose foods that you know will sit well with you (bland foods, soups, bananas, crackers, plain chicken, toast, etc.) Reduce fried foods and heavy meals that create a big load on your digestive system (remember, our bodies will not put much energy in digesting when we are stressed). Do not rely on caffeine to give you a boost. Too much caffeine may have adverse effects such as increase cortisol, anxiety and energy crash. Also, remember to slow down while you eat to allow your body to digest and absorb nutrients efficiently. Lastly, stay hydrated (with water!!).
Enjoy it, mindfully! Food is more than fuel. Food can also be used as pleasure and comfort from time to time.** When we allow ourselves to have the food that we crave, we can enjoy it mindfully without guilt and move on. If you are debating if you should or should not eat something, you are using a lot of mental space focusing on food instead of what is actually stressing you!
**If you notice you are using food for comfort every time you are stressed/emotional or using it as your crutch, then it is important to address.
In out fast paced lives, it is foolish to think we can avoid stress. However, we can learn manage it more efficiently! Stress affects many aspect of our life including our nutrition and our metabolism. Here are some other ways that we can manage our stress:
I hope this article was beneficial and brought you value! If you need help regarding your nutrition during stressful/emotional times, please reach out.
The Balanced Practice is a team of professionals specialized in eating disorder outpatient treatment. We strive to provide evidence based nutrition counselling to support you, or your loved one, in achieving full recovery. Schedule a connection call now.
Marie-Pier Pitre-D’Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Lead Registered Dietitian and Founder at The Balanced Practice
Thank you Céleste Bouchard RD for this great article!