Ding Dongs and Doritos have never solved anyone’s problems, but that doesn’t keep us from seeking solace in food. When work gets hectic, when plans fall apart, when relationships founder, we often try to calm our minds by filling our stomachs.
Everyone has their own comfort food. A bag of chips, a big plate of macaroni and cheese, or a carton of mocha fudge ripple ice cream can all make a person feel better, at least temporarily.
Food therapy has an obvious downside: While it may be comforting, it’s also fattening. Everybody knows that obesity rates have been climbing steadily over the decades and that we live in stressful times. Is it possible that we’re simply trying to eat our way to happiness? Could stress be making us fat?
In recent years, scientists have uncovered surprising connections between stress, appetite, and weight gain. Simply stated, the chemicals that we produce during stressful times can help determine what we eat and how we store fat in our bodies.
Despite what some late-night commercials claim, this new understanding has not led to any magic-bullet treatments for weight loss; you can’t slim down simply by taking a pill that supposedly blocks stress hormones.
But recent research does help drive home a point that many psychologists and weight-loss specialists have been making for years: Managing stress can be a crucial first step toward slimming down.
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The cortisol connection
When we feel stressed out, our bodies resort to chemical warfare. Looming deadlines, traffic jams, or arguments turn on an alarm in the brain that triggers the release of stress hormones. As a key part of our defense, the adrenal gland starts releasing large amounts of the hormone cortisol, a chemical that helps prime the body’s “fight or flight” response.
Cortisol gets a lot of attention in both medical journals and the press, and for good reason. For one thing, it seems to play a major role in all sorts of stress-related health problems, including heart disease and weakened immune systems.
It also helps control the buildup of fat, a process of deep interest to just about everyone. In times of stress, cortisol can collect fat from the blood and other storage places in the body and move it to the belly. Cortisol can also increase the size of individual fat cells. For some people, waist size may be an outward sign of stress. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that women with mostly abdominal obesity tended to produce especially large amounts of cortisol when faced with a difficult task.
Cortisol isn’t the only hormone released during stress, and it’s certainly far from the only hormone that controls appetite. For these reasons, it’s overly simplistic to say that cortisol alone causes weight gain. Likewise, she says, it’s unrealistic to think that so-called cortisol-blocking supplements could aid in weight loss — and that’s assuming such products can even reduce cortisol levels in the first place.
Still, there’s little doubt that cortisol affects food choices. Studies in both animals and humans suggest that the hormone may help stoke an appetite for high-energy foods loaded with fat, sugar, or both. As reported in an issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, rats that have their adrenal glands removed suddenly lose all interest in sugary drinks, but will still happily