If you've ever craved ice cream, chocolate or other calorie-laden foods after a stressful day, you are not alone. Many people seek out such comfort foods not just for their taste, but because they also soothe the effects of chronic anxiety. While reaching for yet another slice of pizza may make you feel immediately better, emotional eating has significant, long-term side effects such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The Stress Response
When you experience a dangerous situation, your brain transmits a signal to your body, telling it to produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps you respond to danger by elevating your heart rate, speeding up your metabolism and making you more alert. This is known as the "fight or flight" response. When the cortisol reaches your brain, it has an automatic "shut-off" effect. Your brain tells your body to stop producing cortisol and you are then able to relax.
Anxiety Eating and Chronic Stress
When our bodies are confronted with chronic stress, the cortisol production response does not cease. Cortisol production goes into overdrive and our bodies become constantly alert and anxious.
According to "Psychology Today," this constant stress also activates other stress receptors. One of these receptors tells the body to find and consume foods laden with calories and fat. The increased cortisol moves these calories to your abdomen, which is close to your liver, and enables your liver to immediately convert the calories to energy to help you cope with constant stress. These fatty deposits tell your brain to shut off cortisol production and you begin to relax.
While eating rich, fatty foods helps decrease your anxiety short-term, emotional eating can have disastrous long-term health effects. If you are confronted with constant stress as a result of living a busy life, you may rely on the availability of a plethora of high-calorie comfort foods and your energy reserves will not deplete. The calories consumed in response to cortisol result in fat accumulation in your abdomen. Excess weight around the abdomen can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
The good news is that you don't have to eat your way out of stressful situations. Exercise, meditation, yoga and sexual activity also stimulate the part of your brain that makes you seek high-calorie foods during stressful times. Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and mediation, if practiced on a regular basis, can also help your body avoid the stress response.
Getting enough sleep can help your body when it is confronted with stress. A tired body can be more susceptible to the effects of cortisol production, so ensure that you get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
Medication can also help alleviate your anxiety symptoms, and may help you avoid reaching for food when your stress levels are high. Consult your doctor for more information.
Regular cardiovascular exercise is particularly helpful for stress management, depression and anxiety. According to MayoClinic.com, although the direct link between exercise and decreased anxiety is not yet known, exercise can help increase your body's temperature, which can help you relax. In addition, exercise releases brain chemicals called endorphins, which help you feel better. Exercising, by helping you burn calories and lose weight, can also increase your confidence and help you feel better about your body, which may help you resist the temptation of comfort foods.