Stress Eating: Good Stress vs Bad Stress - Part 2: The Why
This is not about the food or the enjoyment of the food, it’s about the chemicals induced by the food. It’s actually something your brain is doing to protect you from stress – an attempt to soothe the stress hormone – cortisol, when there’s a lot of it being released for a dangerous length of time aka CHRONIC STRESS. To be uber clear: your compulsions are not related to food, they are tied to soothing or resetting something that is harmful to your body. This is what motivates the act in the first place. Insulin makes you crave fat. High cortisol makes you crave dense calories to reduce anxiety and damper the stress response.
If you're looking for Part 1, here it is.
Whether or not you suffer from stress-eating or emotional eating is dictated by your particular coping abilities within your environment. Your body has discovered an effective way of coping with a harmful and chronic situation. That solution unfortunately, is stress-eating. The effect is relief – it’s a feeling that is just like taking drugs. So you are a drug addict in many ways, and you must look at this situation from a similar perspective. If you’re struggling – I don’t blame you! This soothing habit creates an extremely powerful chemical dependence in the brain and body – because it effectively gives you relief from the stress chemicals.
Think of stress like a giant fire drill in the body. There are two key players in your stress response. One is called the HPA-axis. One is called SAM, or sympathetic-adreno-medullary system. For this to sound more interesting, I’m going to call HPA axis Happa. *I’m allowed to say that – I’m half-Asian. I'll call the other - Sam. So there’s Happa and Sam, two firemen armed with hormones. Happa takes a bit longer than Sam – but they both have the same goal: help the body deal with the crisis at hand.
Normally Happa gets a bunch of hormones to release, the most important of which is cortisol, and when cortisol is released it gets your motor running: it suppresses your immune system and gives you enough energy to deal with life. Once enough is released, some of the cortisol makes its way back to the hose spigot and Happa turns off the hose: the cortisol is shut off. “Crisis averted! Shut that hose off!” Because if the cortisol keeps a’ flowin’ your organs start to deteriorate and your emotions and sleep cycle get out of whack. Not to mention, you store fat, and have increased insulin resistance, etc. No Bueno. Sam is like the “bro” of the two firemen. He’s all agro about dealing with the stress fire, he gets after it! Sam gives you a burst of testosterone and adrenaline and also stops your food digestion, to help you fight and win this battle.
Together, Happa and Sam get you capable of fighting off the threat and confronting the challenging situation. However, if you are in a chronic state of intense stress, your tissues cannot handle it. Sam and Happa’s activation can wreak havoc on your body, eventually even degrading your gene code.
One very important difference in the damage has to do with how Happa and Sam receive that call: is it a call from a town screaming bloody murder? Or is it an adorable kitten that won’t come down from a tree? In other words, how big the stress response depends on the way you feel about the stress itself. Certain responses to stress won’t sound the same amount of alarm to both Sam and Happa. There are two significant key factors in the kind of stress - it's sometimes referred to as “threat stress” vs. “challenge stress.” Challenge Stress meaning, you experience stress as a challenge, but you are not experiencing it as a threat to your person – Threat Stress meaning, a threat to self-image: something you feel unable to handle that will hurt you socially or that you perceive as a personal failure. The way they tested this fact was done with lab rats – and they are cute! And I really wish I didn’t see this deck. I was Googling to understand the definitions, and well, it’s really upsetting. I will add links to the end of this article if you want to read them, too. Anyhoo – the key factors that effect how you react to the stress lie in these factors: the predictability of the stress (which is dictated by your genetics, your past experiences) and the environment you are reacting to (its controllability: type of stress, frequency, intensity and duration). Both of these dictate how you will COPE with stress. AKA what that phone call sounds like when it gets to Happa and Sam. I’ll call this your coping style. A lot of the way we react to stress is just a habit: regardless of how major that stressor is, you could become extremely sensitive to it or be overwhelmed but totally handling it. To quote another study I read, “...the value and meaning we assign to the stress stimuli, determines how ‘harmful’ a stressor is...”
Threat Stress: Includes fear - a feeling that we cannot cope with the stressor. When the “threat stress” includes public embarrassment or social failure it’s an even bigger response, physiologically.
Challenge Stress: Includes a feeling that our stressor is controllable – that we are capable of dealing, and that it’s a demanding BUT not fear-inducing situation.
In short, if you experience your stress as threat, where you are fearful, or emotionally distressed, you are more likely a stress-eater than if you experience your stress as a challenge. Cortisol stimulates hunger and feeding- adrenaline is part of the fight/flight response which shuts down digestion. Threat stress stimulates eating more than challenge stress. Sam, the agro dude is activated by challenge stress. Hence the reason most don’t overeat from this kind of stress. Challenge stress types eat less, on average.
So what predicts the way you experience stress aka your stress type?
It’s probably a combination of factors. It has a lot to do with your genetics, your life experiences and how you cope based on those factors. If you were shy as a kid and you went through something super scary and traumatic at unpredictable times, this would exacerbate your stress sensitivity. Regardless of how your stress type was set up, it doesn’t mean you can’t LEARN better skills and grow new abilities to handle stress, now. In my experiences, everything is trainable, including new reactions to old triggers. Which is what we’re going to learn some more about in the tools.
You might also be more effected by the food stimuli of your environment – maybe because you’re dieting or image-conscious, and you are not inclined to self-sooth in another fashion. You’re also biologically more sensitive to the food soother – maybe you’re more vulnerable to the opinions of others, like you are especially delicate or fearful of disappointing others. Or maybe you’re just type-A and feel a heightened need to control everything in your environment – even when that’s just an illusion.
People who are stressed have a low-level of something called NPY, that causes a high level of anxiety. NPY is an anxiolytic peptide, leading to decreased anxiety. There are low levels of this in people with PTSD – or high stress. And Glucocorticoids stimulate NPY release, which decreases anxiety. You are eating to lessen anxiety! (So part of your solution is to attack the anxiety from other angles.)
Why is this happening to me!?
It’s your brain’s self-protective mechanism gone wrong. Your brain is trying to protect from the harmful threat-stress response by pushing you to eat foods that will release opiods. The foods sustain opiod release. It’s actually a highly effective coping behavior! Your body is smart– only problem is, while it solves the other stress hormone problem, the brain grows dependent on it. It could easily be something else – like cocaine, but once your brain finds a way to regulate the danger, it grows reliant on it.
“Opioids decrease activity of the HPA axis on different levels in order to terminate and attenuate the stress response, providing a negative feedback control mechanism.” 
Your body is empowering itself to stop the damage of the stress-response. Fatty foods release the same chemicals as cocaine in the brain reward system (opioid, dopamine and endocannabinoid) which creates a powerful addiction loop. It also makes you dependent on the reward center chemicals– your body’s natural morphine, and you can literally go through withdrawals from eating lots of fatty/sugary foods to calm yourself. It’s no small thing! This shit is potent!! Neurobiological adaptations occur from repeated use of this drug called “stress-eating,” aka you form new muscle memory, so the more you use it, the more you’ll increase the compulsiveness of your overeating.
Cortisol/stress stimulates your appetite and causes you to crave high-fats more often and increase your food intake, while making your body less able to process to the sugars, aka insulin resistance, which is what happens in diabetes. Because your body is in this mode of saving sugar and needing sugar you are getting hunger signals to your brain while storing unused sugars as fat.
And this becomes an addiction – because it alters your neural pathways. It gets stronger with each practice – because of how it alters your reward system. Because it’s a chemical loop, a need for high-fat / high sugar foods continues on after the stress has been removed. There’s also research that suggests stress inhibits your right prefrontal cortex activity, which lessens your ability to think and control your food intake.
What else predicts becoming a stress-eater?
Another MAJOR predictor of whether or not you are going to be a stress-eater is whether or not you already are a “control eater” or restraint eater – meaning, if you’re always on a diet. Restraining your food intake makes you a ton more susceptible to stress-eating, because in part, the withholding of calories sets up the downfall. And for what it’s worth – people who diet usually eat the same amount of calories (and then-some) as those who don’t, but in the form of a rollercoaster. Diets are usually a longer loop of withholding then eventually binging / breaking down: it’s like your body’s way of leveling itself to normal, again.
But why am I even more emotional when I’m stressed?
Stress-eating also fucks with your emotions because it’s tied to all sorts of levers in your body, besides your immune system. Because fatty and sugary foods mess with your glucose, you might experience mood swings that make you feel like a baby, crashes of depression. Not to mention, messed up periods and decreased sex drive from the hormone fluctuations.
In order to help yourself out of this habit, you’ve got to tackle the stress and the stress-chemicals, overall. Not just the symptom – which is stress-eating. Tilt the scales in your favor. Give yourself a leg up where you actually have access to your highest thinking: when you’re outside of that habit’s powerful loop.
Once you can build up a rhythm and be successful in this soothing, you will naturally tend toward that thing: it’s not this hard forever. It one day will be a faint memory! You will not “be” this person when your chemicals are balanced and you have another proven method of soothing. This is when you actually become addicted to the new, healthy habit. It will be something you CRAVE completely organically. Like your body will actually say to you, “I want salad.” Or “I really need to go running.” It’s not just that you’re different than other people – this is just what comes from creating chemical balance.
Which brings me to, Part 3: The Tools… up next!