You’re about to meet two people whose severe anxiety is affecting their diet in very different but equally harmful ways. Maria overeats. Daniel, on the other hand, can’t eat. The shared theme that emerges in their stories is that they need help.
Maria had never experienced such intense stress before, following a break-up with her boyfriend, her grandmother’s death, and an unexpected rent hike. During this same period, Maria’s food cravings and eating patterns changed dramatically. Instead of a fruit smoothie and coffee for breakfast, she had to have donuts and Coke. Lunch consisted of fast-food meals. For dinner, Maria would bake a frozen pizza and eat the whole thing. Nothing seemed to satisfy her cravings for high-fat, high-calorie foods. In just two months, Maria gained 20 pounds. She also suffered from insomnia, frightening heart palpitations, and midnight panic attacks.
While driving to work one morning, Daniel was hit from behind by a teenager who was texting and driving. Although the crash caused only minor damage to his car, Daniel developed severe pain and stiffness in his neck and upper back. Diagnosed with whiplash, Daniel had to use up all his sick days because he could not perform his warehouse duties. Forced to take an extended sick leave, Daniel fell behind on his bills. However, unlike Maria, Daniel lost his appetite due to stress and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, cramping, and nausea. He literally had to force himself to eat two or three bites of food at meals. Three months after the accident, Daniel had lost 30 pounds. Although he had eventually recovered from whiplash, he was in no shape to return to work.
Why Does Stress Affect Our Appetite? How Can Stress Increase or Reduce Appetite?
Daniel and Maria didn’t know it but a hormone was causing their food and appetite problems. The primary stress hormone cortisol (hydrocortisone) plays a significant role in controlling appetite and food cravings. Whenever we think we are in danger, whether that perceived danger comes from a growling dog, extreme weather events, or riding a perilous amusement park ride, our adrenal glands release a flood of cortisol into the bloodstream. Triggered by the nervous system’s stimulation of the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in the brain, the adrenal glands continue pumping out cortisol until the brain no longer “thinks” it is in danger.
There is a good reason why stress and cortisol are closely linked to each other. Cortisol gives you that surge of energy, muscle tension, and enhanced cognition essential for surviving perilous situations. Everybody has read stories about people performing acts of superhuman strength when under stress, such as one person being able to lift a vehicle off another person or someone surviving in a remote forest for several weeks. Well, you can thank cortisol for such amazing feats of survival.
Cortisol is also necessary for supporting general health. During non-stressful times, we maintain normal levels of cortisol to help regulate metabolism, blood sugar, inflammation, and immune system responses to infection. In fact, a lack of adequate cortisol in the bloodstream may cause symptoms of adrenal insufficiency. Fatigue, weight loss, low blood pressure, dizziness, and headache are signs of hypocortisolism.
Stress, Appetite, Cortisol, and Ghrelin
Produced in and released by the stomach, ghrelin is a hormone that signals the brain when the stomach is empty and your body needs fuel. After meals, ghrelin levels decrease steadily until you feel hungry again. Hunger pangs indicate the stomach is once again releasing large amounts of ghrelin to get you to do one thing–eat.
Ghrelin also inhibits the oxidation of fat for energy. This is why individuals experiencing long-term stress like Maria crave high-carb, high-fat, sugary foods. Their body and brain are pleading with them to eat foods that provide short but intense bursts of energy. Since cortisol increases ghrelin levels but prevents the body from relying on fat stores for energy, stress and anxiety can make you crave the energy boost provided by doughnuts, ice cream, and potato chips.
Unfortunately, unhealthy “energy” foods don’t give you a lengthy burst of energy. Within several hours of eating junk food, your body has quickly metabolized and depleted this cheap kind of energy. And once again, the cravings come roaring back.
Daniel’s stress caused him to have severe gastrointestinal symptoms that repressed his appetite and expedited weight loss. Other health issues affecting people experiencing long-term stress include:
- Chronic musculoskeletal pain
- Low blood oxygen due to consistently taking short, rapid breaths
- Tachycardia/panic attacks
- Worsening of respiratory conditions (asthma, COPD)
- Heart attack/heart disease/high cholesterol
- Impaired immune system functioning
Decades of clinical evidence exist that shows unrelieved stress promotes debilitating medical issues. The combination of cortisol, poor diet, lack of quality sleep, and development of serious diseases is definitely not a good recipe for living a long and healthy life.
Can Diet Affect Stress Levels?
Eating high-calorie, processed foods while your adrenal glands keep pumping out excess amounts of cortisol exacerbates stress and anxiety and inflames the next craving … and the next … and the next. This intense cycle of craving, eating, and craving again is incredibly difficult to overcome if a stressful situation isn’t resolved quickly and acceptably. When the source of stress can’t be reduced or eliminated in a timely manner, one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health is to seek help from a trusted therapist like our therapists at FHE Health.
How to Get Help if Your Stress and Diet Have Become Uncontrollable
Do you lay awake at night because your mind won’t turn off? Do you worry about “bad” things that probably won’t even happen? Do you feel exhausted when you wake up in the morning? Have you gained or lost weight because of stress? If you answered “yes” to these questions, you aren’t alone.
According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS):
- Around 75 percent of Americans report physical and psychological symptoms due to stress (depression, anxiety, heart palpitations, recurring illnesses, panic attacks)
- Nearly 35 percent of all Americans say they feel like they are frequently under “extreme stress”
- Almost 50 percent of Americans say their stress levels have increased over the last five years
- One in four Americans say stress has alienated them from family members and friends
- Over half of all Americans report fighting with people close to them because they are feel stressed and anxious.
At FHE Health, we offer integrated care that simultaneously treats mental health issues like anxiety and related medical conditions (high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.). Our counselors can help you change negative thought patterns that may be contributing to anxiety and negatively impacting your diet. Whether you have been dealing with stress in your life for much too long or recently found yourself overwhelmed by stressful events, FHE Health can help you learn how to take control of anxiety, panic attacks, and poor eating habits that only worsen your stress.Contact us today for immediate help.