Why you Eat More when you’re Stressed!

Are you someone who eats more when you are stressed? If so, you are not alone, as two thirds of people say that they eat more when stressed. Or are you in the one third that loses your appetite and doesn’t want to eat when things get stressful?

Of course, we face different kinds of stresses in our lives and in this video and blog, I give you a little bit of an explanation of why you might eat more when you’re stressed. Because when we are armed with that information, like anything, we can then make choices and decision to do something about it if we want to!

If you were to meet a lion as you’re walking down the road (as you do!) what would happen? Would you stop and take a picture, or would you run away? You would probably run away unless you had some kind of safety around you. When we’re faced with stress our body goes into a kind of fight or flight mentality. Our body doesn’t know that our stress is not a lion so if we are stressed it responds as if there is a lion right in front of us.

When faced with stressors, to start with your appetite actually decreases. In a real emergency situation body is concentrating on sending blood and energy to other areas and the last thing on your mind if you’re faced with a lion will be: “Hmm, I want to snack”, or “Where’s my next meal coming from?” or “I’m hungry.” You’ll just need to run so your body will shut down everything that’s non-essential. Your appetite will be suppressed, and you’ll start using the energy that’s already stored in your body to run away. Once you’re not stressed anymore, the opposite happens: you stop using the energy that’s stored in your body and you start needing to take it in again, so your appetite increases to encourage you to get more nutrients into your body.

There are two hormones involved during this process:

  • CRH which suppresses your appetite
  • Glucocorticoids which increase / stimulate your appetite.

.And when the glucocorticoid is released, you tend to crave things like starchy, sugary, full-of-fat foods.

So why can’t we take a CRH tablet so suppress appetite? Well, you wouldn’t want to live with that level of CRH in your bloodstream for long because while you might need it in the short term, it has lots of ill effects.

Both CRH and glucocorticoids are secreted when we are stressed, but it’s actually their timing and how long the stress last for that’s important, rather than the hormones themselves, or the fact that you are getting stressed.

The effects of CRH, which suppresses your appetite, are felt within seconds. If you see a lion and you’re going to run away, then your body immediately starts releasing this hormone. Feeling hungry will be the last thing on your mind! It’s a short sharp burst to get you moving, and then CRH is cleared from your body as quickly as it was released.

Glucocorticoids, however, take minutes to hours to be released, but also take minutes to hours to clear. And depending on the type of stress, the effects can manifest in different ways.

If you have a truly stressful experience for 10-minutes, some kind of sudden emergency, where your heart is in your mouth, CRH is released quickly, lasts for 10 minutes or so, and then clears.  The glucocorticoids are released a little later but then the effect of that last for longer too. So, the ultimate effect of that 10 minutes of a truly stressful experience is an increased appetite.

If you have a stressful few days, say someone’s in hospital or someone’s at the end of their life, or you have another serious, slightly longer running emergency, then this effect will be less obvious because the CRH and glucocorticoids will even out a little bit. The CRH will still be released quickly but may continue releasing for longer. The glucocorticoid will again follow behind, but they’ll both drop off at the same time.  Your appetite is suppressed for that period of stress, and it might not even increase for a long time afterwards because the glucocorticoids have been released and diminished at the same time the CRH was still being released. This explains why, when you going through a loss or something that happens over a longer period of time that’s truly stressful, sometimes people do lose their appetite.

But the kind of stress we tend to experience day-in day-out is more of a constant, but low-level stress. You’ve lost your car keys and can’t find them; you’re going to be late for work; you’ve got a deadline looming, you haven’t got time to make lunch so you just grab something; you have to go and pick something up but you haven’t got time to do it, and the kids are whining and complaining at you… and on and on it goes.

In this situation, the CRH is getting released then suppressed, released and suppressed, and the glucocorticoid never has a chance to clear from your system, so you have this constant need to eat, and to eat sugary, starchy snacks, because the glucocorticoid is encouraging you to do so.

In some other places in the world, the things that stress us out here in the Western world would just not be a stress at all. When you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, or when you’re in a life-and-death situation you’re not worried about where your car keys are, or whether you are going to be a little late for work!  But in our society we’re often in a cycle of intermittent stress throughout the day and that’s what leads to increased appetite.

So what’s the solution? If you can stop being as stressed, that would be wonderful, but not necessarily totally possible! But you could consider ways to mitigate your stress levels through exercise, relaxation, energisation, time with friends, time doing hobbies that you enjoy, even breathing, or going out for walks. All of these will help your stress and that will help to suppress your appetite. There are things you can do too, to mitigate the problem of reaching for sugary, starchy snacks if you are stressed – having healthier alternatives and making it a priority to make proper, healthy meals even if you are busy, will help.

Of course, if you’re experiencing the more traumatic kind of stress then hopefully that will only be temporary, but do get some help and support if you need it.

We’d love to know what happens to you when you are stressed – are you one of the people who finds themselves eating more or do you lose your appetite? Tell us in the comments…  

And if you fancy de-stressing a little bit by doing some lovely stretching exercises and hearing a Bible passage and thoughts from God we are running new 10-15 minute Stretch and Soul Sessions. They are live once a week, but you can catch up at any time as they are also recorded. They are now available for Fitfish for a Fiver members and you can find out how to join here.   


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