Stress is a natural part of the human experience. When we are faced with a challenge or a threat, our bodies respond by tensing up to prepare for action and releasing chemicals like the hormone cortisol to give us focus and stamina. However, when stress becomes a consistent state, it can wreak havoc on an individual both physically and psychologically.
About one third of Americans are living with extreme stress, and about 75 percent have experienced physical and psychological symptoms related to stress, according to the American Psychological Association. Some of the common symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, but stress can also have a significant impact on appetite, digestion and diet.
In many cases, stress is associated with inflammation and weight gain, but for some people, stress can contribute to weight loss and a lack of appetite. If you are wondering whether stress is contributing to diet or weight changes in your life, here are 5 signs to look out for.
- You’re craving fat and sugar. According to Harvard Medical School, many studies have shown that stress can lead to an increased intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. Fat and sugar can inhibit parts of the brain related to stress and temporarily relieve symptoms, which is probably why sugary, fatty foods are a go to for individuals feeling overwhelmed and worn out.
- You’re hungrier than usual. High levels of stress can lead to elevated levels of the hormone ghrelin, which helps control appetite and a sense of satiation or “fullness” after eating. Increased levels of ghrelin can make an individual feel hungry more often.
- You’re less hungry than usual. In some individuals, stress and anxiety can lead to a reduced appetite. When our bodies are preparing to face immediate danger, the sympathetic nervous system is activated in order to help us face the threat while the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls digestion and other bodily functions, is suppressed. Because of this, acute stress can dampen appetite and lead to an upset stomach or digestive problems that make eating feel uncomfortable.
- You’re eating more junk food and fast food. When individuals are under distress, they are more likely to reach for fast, convenient foods with a high calorie count. Planning and preparing meals may feel like an overwhelming amount of effort when under chronic stress. In addition, overworking and or procrastinating as a reaction to stress may leave little time or mental energy to prepare healthy meals.
- You’re gaining weight. Some studies have shown that experiencing a stressful event the day before eating a high-fat meal can significantly slow the metabolism. So much so, that individuals may see as much as a 11-pound weight gain over the course of a year. In one study, participants who were stressed burned 104 fewer calories after eating a high-fat meal.
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