Whether it’s on the way to work, on the train or in the car – for many of us, eating is no longer a pleasure, but a means to an end. And often also a means of reducing stress. But what exactly is “stress” and why does food, of all things, help to reduce it?
What are stress and stress hormones?
“Stress” is a physical reaction to imminent danger. This means that when your senses perceive danger, so-called stress reactions are triggered and stress hormones are released, which ensure that your body and reflexes can react quickly.
Many different things come together to cause stress and there are different stress triggers. Everyone feels stressed by different things and everyone tries to relieve stress in different ways. Food is another way to reduce stress. In the long term, however, eating as a compensation strategy can lead to obesity and unhealthy eating habits.
In this blog article, you will learn how stress and food are connected, how you can optimally nourish yourself during stress to strengthen your nerves and how you can reduce stress in your everyday life.
What functions does stress have?
In the past, when people still lived in caves, had to look after their own food when hunting and were possibly chased by dangerous animals, the stress mechanism made a lot of sense. The stress response ensures that you are optimally prepared for “fight” or “flight” situations. Your body then quickly provides energy in the form of sugar and free fatty acids, activates your muscles and supplies your brain with nutrients. Your senses are sharpened. Your pulse and blood pressure also increase so that your lungs and muscles can be better supplied with blood. At the same time, “unnecessary” processes such as digestion, hunger and libido are suppressed. Once the danger has been averted, the stress response is automatically downregulated and your body can recover.
Nowadays, however, stress for most people means deadlines, lack of time, looking after children while working a full-time job, financial worries, fear of loneliness and much more! Your nerves are overloaded and your body cannot react with fight or flight in the situations described to reduce stress and thus escape the stressful situation. This means that the energy provided in the form of sugar and fatty acids is not used up and remains in the blood. And the stress hormones that trigger the stressful situation are not broken down either. Likewise, the stress triggers are and remain there. This means that in this day and age, people are often “permanently stressed”. What is a sensible short-term strategy to escape imminent danger is very unhealthy for us humans in the long term and in this day and age. The consequences of chronic stress are manifold, more on this below.
What are stress hormones and what function do they have in the body?
Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, are released when the body perceives stress. There are two stress responses:
- Adrenaline is released first, which prepares for an immediate fight-or-flight response. The breathing rate and heart rate increase, the arms and legs are supplied with less blood and stomach acid production is increased.
- The second stress response sets in a little later. It serves to prepare you for a longer-lasting threat and to support longer-term stress management. The stress hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol ensures that more sugar is produced in the liver and the blood sugar level rises. In addition, protein from the muscle cells is converted into sugar and muscle growth is inhibited. At the same time, the blood’s ability to coagulate increases in order to reduce the risk of bleeding to death in the event of injury.
In the case of chronic stress, the down-regulation of the stress response in the brain by cortisol can be disrupted, leading to a persistent stress response. This significantly increases the risk of depression and other illnesses. The development of stress management strategies is therefore crucial in order to reduce the negative effects.
What are the consequences of chronic stress?
If you are only exposed to stressful situations from time to time, this is usually not a problem and you don’t need to worry. Stress only becomes problematic when it lasts longer or becomes chronic. This is because the body is then constantly providing energy, which in most cases is not used up. The cortisol level in the blood is often elevated during long-term stress.
Symptoms of constant stress are varied and harmful to health in the long term. In the table you can see what the physical and psychological symptoms and consequences of chronic stress can be.
What is the connection between stress and weight loss?
Prolonged stress often leads to a cloudy mood and is associated with the need to feel better. Subconsciously, you look for ways and means to feel better. Your body’s own reward system wants to be activated. One possible way is to try to compensate for stress by eating, as certain foods can activate the reward system. As a result, many people gain weight.
When stressed, many people tend to eat so-called nerve food, mostly foods high in fat and sugar, such as fast food or sweets. The speed at which they eat and the amount they eat is often very high. This results in extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which in turn triggers cravings. If stress is not reduced in the long term, this often leads to obesity and the associated dissatisfaction with one’s own body, which in turn causes stress. It is therefore a vicious circle.
Social stressors in particular, such as loneliness and rejection, promote an increased feeling of hunger and an increased need to eat. In society, people often talk about “frustration eating” or “stress eaters”.
Why is it that people tend to prefer unhealthy foods when they are stressed?
Who doesn’t know it, the nerve food: why sweet and fatty foods that are high in calories (e.g. donuts, sweet pastries, milk chocolate) can activate your reward system is because sugar and fat can act in the brain like some drugs or alcohol. This means that when these foods are consumed in stressful situations, a reward response is triggered in the brain and the neurotransmitter dopamine is released. Dopamine conveys a pleasant and good feeling. This can develop into a psychological addiction, as the body learns that foods high in sugar and fat help to improve mood and well-being. As a result, your body repeatedly craves sweet and fatty foods to cope with stress. This is usually followed by a feeling of guilt, so that eating is often associated with negative feelings and is no longer a pleasure. The vicious circle is fueled further and it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of it. In such cases, it is important to break the stress spiral.
What you need in such cases are different and healthy strategies and methods for coping with stress.
How can you reduce stress?
As you have now learned, stress is very unhealthy for your body in the long term. It is therefore important to learn how you can deal with stress or how you can reduce it in a healthier way.
The reward system, which you can activate through alcohol, drugs or fatty and sweet food, can also be activated through exercise and sport. This means that sporting activities also lead to the release of the happiness hormones dopamine and serotonin and thus activate your reward system.
However, short but conscious relaxation and breathing exercises can also help you to reduce stress. Autogenic training, meditation, alternate breathing or yin yoga are particularly suitable for this.
Anything that is good for you can help you to cope with your stress. Think about what else could make you happy apart from food. This could include petting your pet, taking a warm bath, reading a good book or spending time with your loved ones. Write down the things that make you happy and make a plan as to which strategy you could best use in which stressful situation to reduce stress.
Nerve food: Which foods help to strengthen the nerves?
So far, there is little information about certain foods that can reduce stress. However, it has been shown that chewing can help you to reduce stress.
Digression: stress and gastric balloon?
If you have a gastric balloon
then frequent chewing will have two positive effects for you: It ensures that no foodbaby develops and at the same time helps you to reduce stress.
As explained above, stress causes more stomach acid to be produced. More stomach acid is very unfavorable if you have a gastric balloon. The stomach is already somewhat irritated by the gastric balloon. If stress is added to this, it can increase stomach problems such as cramps, nausea and heartburn. It is therefore particularly important that you try to avoid stressful situations or find ways to reduce stress. Exercise, for example, is a very good strategy to compensate for your stress and continue your weight loss.
Which foods are particularly good in stressful times?
During stressful times, your body uses certain nutrients more than others to produce neurotransmitters, stress hormones and energy. You can restore these nutrients to your body by eating a healthy and varied diet. This allows you to recover from stress more quickly or react more appropriately to stress in the future.
These foods are particularly suitable as “real” “nerve food”:
- sufficient fluid intake is particularly important for your performance and for your ability to react to stress. Thirst is already a sign of an inadequate supply of fluids. Make sure that you drink at least 1.5-2 liters of energy-free drinks (water, unsweetened tea) every day.
- it is also important to get enough energy (calorien) from the main nutrients carbohydrates, fat and protein. Pay particular attention to the source of the nutrients. You should give preference to slowly digestible carbohydrates from wholegrain cereals, pulses and vegetables. They have the advantage that the feeling of satiety lasts longer and your blood sugar level rises more slowly. This prevents cravings. Studies also show that complex carbohydrates from wholegrain products, fruit and vegetables stimulate the production of the happiness hormone serotonin, which makes us feel calm and happy and can also reduce our stress levels. Low levels of serotonin are also associated with an increased risk of depression.
- the quality of the fat source is also important when it comes to fat. The fatty acids contained in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds as well as in fatty sea fish are important components for your hormones, messenger substances and cell walls as well as your nerves. They strengthen your stress resistance and your nerve cells. A sufficient supply of the “right” fats is therefore very important, especially in times of increased stress.
- Chronic stress leads to increased muscle breakdown or inhibited muscle growth. This effect can be mitigated if you give your body enough protein. It is best to incorporate both animal and vegetable protein sources, as the mixture of both provides you with all the important building blocks for muscle building. You can make sure that you tend to reduce your consumption of animal products, as meat often contains inflammation-promoting substances. These are less good for chronic stress and tend to worsen the symptoms.
- it is also important to have a sufficient supply of micronutrients, i.e. vitamins and minerals, to arm the body against chronic stress. In the table below you can read which foods contain many nutrients that are particularly important during stress, as they are used up more quickly in stressful situations. As a result, chronic stress may increase your requirements, which is why you should make sure you have a sufficient supply of the nutrients listed. The foods in the table are real nerve food. If you incorporate more of these foods into your daily diet, you will notice that your overall well-being will improve significantly.
We can therefore conclude that stress, diet and the desire to lose weight are closely linked. One often causes the other. We can conclude that a healthy and varied diet not only helps you to lose weight, but also strengthens and supports your nerves and thus your ability to react to stressful situations. To stay healthy and productive, it is important to avoid chronic stress by choosing healthy stress management methods. Relaxation in particular also plays a major role in reducing stress.
Singh K (2016) Nutrient and Stress Management. J Nutr Food Sci 6: 528. doi:10.4172/2155-9600.1000528
Kraaibeek und DAK Gesundheit: Ernährung bei Stress – richtig gut Essen und Trinken für Starke Nerven. Verfügbar unter: https://kraaibeek.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Handout_Ernaehrung-bei-Stress_DAK_Kraaibeek-1.pdf
So many different things influence our metabolism and our weight: stress, illnesses, medication and the yo-yo effect are just a few aspects. Losing weight can be quite frustrating! But there is a way out for everyone! As a nutritionist at My Weight®, I support my patients individually and personally on their way to their desired weight. Losing weight can and should be fun...and we work on this together!
Julie - Weight Buddy® and nutritionist at My Weight®