There is a strong connection between stress, anxiety, and excessive food intake (‘stress eating‘).
If you’re like most people, food can be a source of comfort when life gets crazy.
I’ve witnessed first-hand the toll that excessive stress can take on someone’s health and wellness.
It’s not uncommon to see someone gain as much as 20-30lbs in a matter of one to two months when they are stressed and using food as a coping mechanism.
Even worse, stress often leads to lack of motivation and doing less of the things that you love.
While stress is a necessary part of life, being chronically stressed and anxious is surely not conducive to being fit and healthy.
Read on to gain a basic understanding of the physiology of stress and chronic anxiety, as well as actionable tips to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of your diet and exercise goals.
Stress, Anxiety, and the Endocrine System
Cortisol/glucocorticoids, glucagon, and adrenaline are human’s main “stress hormones”.
These hormones are largely regulated by internal and external stressors inflicted on the body (and mind).
Note though, that not all stress is inherently “bad,” which is more appropriately referred to as distress.
Some stress is a necessary part of life, and certain stressful events may actually feel great (which is referred to as eustress).
Anxiety is not necessarily synonymous with stress, but both have similar physiological responses.
Anxiety is a fear or apprehension of future events, and as such, distress often results from that.
Read on to learn how your body responds internally to stress and anxiety.
Cortisol is your main glucocorticoid (stress hormone); it is a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands which regulate metabolism, growth, immunity, and cognitive performance.
Cortisol is thought to be the most potent stress hormone.
It plays a significant role in the process of muscle breakdown since it acts as a catabolic hormone metabolically.
Catabolic hormones, inverse to anabolic hormones, serve to break down body tissues and substrates for energy production.
That being said, cortisol is also an essential hormone to sustain life, as it is part of the reason you jump out of bed when your alarm goes off in the morning.
Cortisol is also what keeps you going when you’re exhausted and deprived of nourishment.
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Moreover, the stress hormone glucagon comes from the pancreas and works inverse to insulin.
Insulin, as you may know, is a storage (anabolic) hormone that helps shuttle glucose into cells.
Thus, glucagon does the opposite and stimulates glucose release into the bloodstream from tissues when blood sugar levels are too low.
The third and final stress hormone is adrenaline/epinephrine (also known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone).
Adrenaline is a catecholamine synthesized throughout the central nervous system and adrenal glands.
Catecholamines have many roles in your body including but not limited regulating your emotions, motor control, cognition, and your endocrine system.
Adrenaline stimulates glycogen breakdown (much like cortisol and glucagon) and also increases heart rate.
It is, more often than not, a positive type of stress hormone; however, excess adrenaline production can interfere with your ability to relax and may induce anxiety.
If you feel constantly ‘on edge’ due to adrenaline rushes, a calming nootropic like GABA will help you relax and focus.
Also be wary that coffee (caffeine) increases adrenaline and cortisol production.
If you’re a coffee lover, try an L-theanine supplement to help balance your body’s response to caffeine.
Stress Hormone’s Affect On Diet
However, stress hormones can counteract the feel-good effects of neurotransmitters like serotonin.
Because of that, the food you eat won’t have the same pleasurable feelings, nor will it satiate you as much as it should.
In short, when your stress hormone balance is out of whack, your appetite regulation will be too.
Your body will also be more prone to store excess calories/nutrients as body fat for long-term energy reserves.
So what can be done to remedy this problem?
Tips For Reducing Stress-Overeating and Staying Fit
By this point, you may feel a little overwhelmed by the ramifications of stress (or more properly, distress) and its downstream effects on food intake.
Therefore, the following tips will help you lower your stress and anxiety, naturally, while staying healthy and fit.
With some time and commitment, these tips will become like second nature to you, helping you be more resistant to distressful thoughts that wear you (and your body) down.
1. Don’t Use Other People As Measuring Sticks To Your Fitness Goals
Obvious but true, comparing yourself to others is setting yourself up for failure, especially when it comes to body image.
Just because your friend is taking every cardio class at the gym or eating a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for you.
Know your body and what works best for you; focus on the progress that you make each day.
A good way to keep track of body composition improvements is simply taking progress pictures each week.
You can also use the scale as a measure of progress, but your body weight isn’t the only method you should go by.
2. Always Keep Properly Hydrated Both In And Out Of The Gym
As soon as your feet hit the ground in the morning, drink a glass of water (before eating breakfast).
Water is crucial for keeping stress hormones in check and regulating your appetite. And of course, it’s calorie-free.
Don’t forget to keep a water bottle nearby throughout the day as well.
As a rule-of-thumb, try to consume roughly one ounce of water for every kilogram you weigh (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds).
For example, a 130lb female should aim for about 60oz of water spread throughout the day.
3. Don’t Overdo It, Embrace Rest Days & Prepare Meals Ahead of Time
If you constantly exercise too much and don’t allow for proper recovery, your body will inevitably reach a point of excessive fatigue.
At such a point, your adrenal glands will not function as they normally should; in turn, this can throw stress hormones into a frenzy, making you more susceptible to overeating as a coping method.
To avoid this, give yourself at least two days off from exhaustive exercise each week. A leisurely walk outside or bike ride through the park are great options to keep ‘active’ without stressing your adrenal glands.
And of course, make sure to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
If you tend to be an overachiever, like many fitness enthusiasts, it can be hard to take a day off from the gym.
However, rest days are ultimately when your body is recuperating and preparing for the next exercise bout.
Thus, use rest days to prepare your meals ahead of time and relax. When you prepare food ahead of time and portion everything out, you greatly reduce the chances that you fall off track with your diet.
This will prevent you from overeating due to stress during the week.
5. Adequate Nutrient Intake
Let’s face it, being ‘hangry’ sucks (and is unnecessary).
Not nourishing yourself properly will leave you drained and fatigued, impeding your body’s ability to recover.
Moreover, starving yourself is a sure way to increase cortisol production (since lack of nourishment is a form of stress); in turn, the risk of binging/overeating in the future is much higher.
Try and eat at least three to four balanced meals/snacks per day, each including a good amount of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fats.
Handy fitness tracking apps like MyFitnessPal can help you monitor your food intake and stay consistent.
Don’t worry, it’s very intuitive no matter your experience level in terms of nutrition.
If you’re ever in a pinch and need a quick, wholesome snack, Quest Bars are high in protein, fiber, and essential fatty acids to help your body repair and operate efficiently.
Not to mention that taste pretty delicious for being chalk full of healthy nutrients.
If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s that stress hormones gone awry can greatly hinder your healthy lifestyle by increasing risk of over-eating.
Moreover, chronic stress and anxiety often lead to lack of motivation to stick to your fitness goals and hit the gym.
By the same token, when you’re in control of your life and know how to prevent distressful situations, your appetite regulation, well-being, and body composition will improve dramatically.