How Can Stress Lead to Weight Gain?| 5 Nutritional Interventions To Reduce Stress
Chronic stress is considered a risk factor for weight gain. Over the last few years, we have seen stress levels increase in parallel with obesity, in particular abdominal obesity, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Sometimes, when we are extremely stressed, we lose our appetite. But there is another side to the coin! We have all had those days when we reach for a packet of crisps, or a muffin, just because we are feeling stressed!
Studies have shown that subjects exposed to a stress test are more likely to increase their calorie intake and tend to make poor food choices i.e. they are more likely to consume high-sugar and high-fat foods, otherwise known as ‘comfort foods.’
How Can Stress Lead To Weight Gain?
Stress can lead to weight gain in a number of ways:
1. Emotional Eating and Binge Eating
Stress often triggers emotional eating and binge eating episodes. When we are stressed, eating can be used as a ‘maladaptive coping mechanism’ to distract us away from what is making us feel stressed.
2. Brain Reward-Centre Activation and Learnt Behaviour
When we are stressed we often seek out ‘comfort foods.’ Such high-sugar/high-fat foods activate the brain ‘reward centre,’ and lead to the secretion of opioids, dopamine and endocannabinoids (basically, the same substances released with drugs).
These substances make us feel better momentarily. As a consequence we learn that if we consume such foods when stressed, we are going to feel better. Therefore, we are more likely to repeat this behaviour, and we form unhealthy eating habits.
3. Increased Cortisol Levels
Stress leads to increased secretion of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which in turn promotes the accumulation of fat.
Clearly, stress and eating are inextricably linked, and as such we believe at EmotionMatters that nutritional and lifestyle management should be considered an integral part of any stress treatment programme.
Can Good Nutrition Help With Stress Management?
Multiple approaches have been used for stress management. These include talking therapy, relaxation therapy, meditation and exercising. But what about our diet? Could we modify our diet as a way to help us feel less stressed?
Diet clearly plays a major role in our psychological wellbeing. We have all experienced that on days we eat a balanced, healthy diet we generally feel better.
Recent evidence suggests that perhaps good nutrition can help with stress management. Nutritional deficiencies that have been linked to increased risk of mental stress include:
1. B vitamins particularly Folate, B12 and B6
These vitamins are critical for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters important for mood.
Rich sources- meat, dairy, liver, nutritional yeast, algae (rich source of B12), dark green leafy vegetables (rich source of folate), chickpeas (rich source of B6)
Magnesium is vital for the functioning of the central nervous system. The anti-stress effects of magnesium have been shown in animal models; mice that have been made magnesium deficient, show symptoms of anxiety, and supplementation with magnesium has shown a reduction in these symptoms. In human studies, intakes of magnesium-rich foods have been found to have an inverse relationship with how stressed individuals perceived themselves to be.
Rich source- nuts, seeds, wholegrains, legumes, bone broths
This mineral alongside magnesium may help with management of stress through supporting nervous system functioning.
Rich source – dairy, sardines
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Evidence suggests that this essential fatty-acid may help reduce your perception of stress through:
- Positively influencing the survival and growth of your nerves
- The synthesis of neurotransmitters
- Acting as an anti-inflammatory nutrient
Rich source- oily fish, algae
5. The Amino-Acid Tryptophan
Tryptophan is the building block of the ‘happiness neurotransmitter’ serotonin, and may increase the activation of our happiness system and hence, help with stress management. There is also some evidence to suggest that tryptophan supplementation may lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Rich sources- eggs, cheese, soy products, turkey, salmon, nuts and seeds
Consuming a balanced diet which includes food rich in the aforementioned nutrients, or alternatively supplementing with these nutrients can help with stress management. However, we believe stress management should involve both nutritional and psychological interventions.
At EmotionMatters, our experienced therapists can help you manage the different stressors in your life and how your respond to them, so that your experience of stress is reduced.
Our nutritional team can also provide you with lifestyle interventions and a nutritional plan rich in foods that can help you with your stress symptoms.