Stress Hormones May Be Making You Hungry and Anxious

Stress raises the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which increase blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate and muscle tension. This acute response helps you make a decision and act quickly when there’s a perceived threat. But when you experience chronic stress, cortisol and adrenaline stay elevated causing increased hunger, anxiety, inflammation and health conditions.

The good news is you can help balance your hormones through diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes, including managing your stress. You can deal with stress by removing the stress trigger or by controlling your response. The first is doable, but often difficult, because it isn’t easy to get rid of a boss, work project, family member or a global pandemic. The second is challenging too, but certain things can help. Managing stress in a healthy way keeps hormones balanced and health conditions at bay. Here’s help with how to do it.

1. Eat a healthy diet.

Eat vegetables, protein, whole grains and healthy fats at each meal. This combo helps stabilize blood sugar and keep you full. Eating enough throughout the day prevents overeating at night. Swap saturated and trans fats found in red meat and fried foods for anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats found in salmon, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed. Saturated fat, processed foods and refined carbohydrates cause inflammation and keep cortisol levels high.

2. Savor treats mindfully.

Have some sweets if it makes you feel better, but don’t use food as a long-term coping mechanism. “Sometimes, eating something carby or sweet because we’re stressed is just what’s going to happen,” says Anabelle Clebaner, MS, RD, RYT, a registered dietitian and founder of Wellspring Nutrition. “The problem is when we continue to use food as a coping mechanism for stress. Taking a mindful moment to ask yourself why you are craving a doughnut before going for it can be helpful too. Perhaps what you really need in that moment is to call your mom, get a hug or massage from your partner, or take a calming bath. Relying on sweets to manage stress is not effective for reducing stress, or making us feel better for more than a few minutes. Of course, sometimes all you need is a sweet treat to move on—and if that’s the case go for it. Just be aware that it is not your only way to deal with stress, and that you have other tools in your toolbox to help manage stressful situations.”

3. Remove stressors from your life.

Get rid of the things that increase stress if you can. “If you find that work is the cause of your stress, try checking your email less often, and not opening up your computer right when you wake up,” says Clebaner. She also recommends turning off the news. These are a couple of simple ways to nix the stressors in our environment.

4. Find other ways to manage stress.

Clebaner recommends: “Getting outdoors and in nature, breathing exercises like box breathing, putting away screens during mealtimes, stretching, using calming essential oils like lavender, drinking herbal tea and taking a bath.

5. Get enough sleep.

Lack of sleep alone throws hunger hormones out of whack. Combine that with stress and your ghrelin (“hunger hormone”), leptin (“satiety hormone”) and cortisol will be imbalanced. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.

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