Stress eating. We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all joked about it, and we’ve probably all done it. How many times do you hear “Oh I just need a glass of wine!” or “Thank goodness this day is over! I’m going home to eat a whole box of Oreos!” Then we laugh and move on. But, really, is it okay to stress eat? Does it help you relax, or does it actually hurt you?
There are biochemical reactions that occur in the body during times of stress that can impact our cravings, which can result in stress eating. But, that begs the question: is it good or bad?
The Foundation: A clean, whole, well balanced, unprocessed diet.
The question is not a simple, black and white answer, but one thing is certain: no matter whether eating for stress or not, it’s important to be consuming a balanced and unprocessed diet in order to nourish the body on a daily basis. This kind of eating should always be your foundation.
However, during stress, a clean diet is more important than ever because unnecessary toxins, preservatives, and malnutrition can add undue strain on an already over-burdened body.
The Body’s Response to Stress
Stress causes biochemical reactions in the body including the release of a hormone called cortisol from adrenals glands. The cortisol response is variable based on the level of stress the body is enduring. Both low-level stress, such as running late to a meeting, and high stress events, like a car accident or running away from wild animal, induce the release of cortisol.
During high stress situations, the fight or flight response is activated and cortisol enables the body to do things it would not normally be able to do. As a result of this response, all body functions are directed at immediate survival, and cortisol signals the brain to shut down any non-essential functions, such as digestion.
In both high and low stress events, cortisol inhibits the body’s digestive function to some extent. In fact, high cortisol levels may lead to reduced stomach acid. We hear about excess stomach acid and acid indigestion frequently, however the real problem is often that there is too little stomach acid rather than too much. The symptoms are very similar, and during stress one may experience heartburn, burping, and indigestion due to low, not high, stomach acid.
Eating During Immediate High Stress: Not recommended
During moments of intense stress, when the fight or flight response is activated and you experience symptoms such as elevated heart rate, butterflies in your stomach, and increased breathing, eating is not recommended. Because of the increased cortisol, your digestive system will not be functioning at its optimal level, which can lead to improper digestion of the foods.
Eating under high stress consistently can not only cause digestive discomfort, such as gas or bloating, it can also cause long-term digestive challenges, including leaky gut, food sensitivities, and IBS.
It’s best to avoid eating during the immediate reaction of a high stress situation. For example, if you almost get into a car accident on the way to a restaurant, give your body time to calm down, reduce your heart rate, and relax before ingesting any food or drink.
Eating During Long-term High to Moderate Stress: Choose what you consume wisely
During extended periods of moderate stress, it is important to stay well-nourished. While cortisol may still be in the body in higher-than-ideal levels, which does inhibit digestion, you must continue to eat, as you need the nutrition for day-to-day physical function as well as support for the increased demands from the stress. The best thing you can do is find a method of eating that will help your body and not harm it. You should eat in a way that nourishes the body without taxing it, such as whole, unprocessed foods and a well-balanced diet. (1)
Certain foods that would typically be considered healthy can be harder to digest during times of stress. For example, some raw foods or unsoaked beans, grains, and nuts are often hard to break down and could cause trouble in a body overwhelmed with cortisol. In order to combat these potential issues, you should cook your food well, soak your beans, nuts, and grains, and consume easy-to-digest, highly nutritious foods.
High-quality supplements can also be used to support stress-related nutritional demands and ensure digestion is occurring properly.
Beneficial Foods During Moderate Stress
It’s always important to stay hydrated, but it can be even more important during periods of stress. Dehydration can impair the body’s ability to deliver nutrients to cells and flush out unwanted toxins. It can also cause unwanted physical symptoms such as headaches and fatigue that further contribute to stress on the body. It’s essential to drink plenty of water to prevent further inhibiting nutrient availability and assimilation, to regulate toxic elimination, and prevent additional undue physical stress. (2)
When we are under stress, we need higher levels of salts and minerals. Sodium is often given a negative connotation, and in excess it can disrupt a proper potassium-to-sodium ratio, but a high-quality salt, such as Himalayan crystal salt, mimics the mineral balance of blood and is essential when cortisol levels are higher than normal.
One of the adrenal gland hormones, aldosterone, regulates sodium balance in the body. When aldosterone is out of balance due to stress and overworked adrenals, it can negatively impact sodium and electrolyte balance, which is necessary for cell hydration. The result can be low blood pressure, light-headedness, fatigue, weakness, digestive issues, and more. High-quality salts with balanced mineral composition can support the restoration of minerals and electrolytes in the body. (3)
Among many other functions, magnesium helps relax the body and can be in high demand during stress. In fact, those chocolate cravings you experience may even be triggered by the need for magnesium. You should consume magnesium-rich foods including cacao, dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and avocado, and consider a high-quality supplement with a proper form of magnesium. (4)
Vitamin C is necessary for keeping the immune system functioning well, and it becomes even more necessary during stress, which can be taxing on immunity. Consume foods that are high in vitamin C such as fruits and vegetables like red bell pepper, broccoli, or oranges. The average person should be consuming five servings of vegetables in a day, and during periods of stress, even more can be helpful. (4)
Key Foods to Avoid During Stress
Excess caffeine mimics the stress response in body and puts further taxation on the adrenal glands. A small cup of coffee may be fine for some, but any more than that is too much during stressful periods of life. If you find yourself needing coffee to get through the day, try decreasing your caffeine consumption by incorporating a non-toxic brand of decaf, such as Swiss Water. Avoid anything with high levels of caffeine, including coffee, black tea, or energy drinks. (4)
Sugar is always hard on the body and it’s best to limit sugar intake on a consistent basis. It causes unnecessary burden on the body and can contribute to fluctuating blood sugar levels, which are already likely to be out of balance from excess stress. The spike and crash that comes from sugar not only leads to fatigue but also emulates stress in the body. These fluctuations make it hard to control cravings and allow the body to heal from the damage stress has caused. (5)
Back to the old glass of wine! We want it because it relaxes us; however, there is a cycle. Alcohol can raise cortisol levels, increase oxidative stress, contribute to feelings of anxiety, and disturb sleep. All of these symptoms contribute to stress, so it’s best to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum or even avoid it all together. (4,6)
Eating under high fight-or-flight type of stress is not recommended due to excess cortisol and slowed digestion. Under moderate or extended periods of stress, eat in a way that nourishes and refuels your body when it has been depleted by stress. Consume plenty of water, Himalayan crystal salt, magnesium, vitamin C, and easy-to-digest whole, unprocessed foods. Soak trouble foods like beans, nuts, and grains, cook vegetables, and consume nutrient-rich smoothies. Space your meals out to fully digest food, and avoid caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.
Life happens, and times of stress will come about. Use these tips to support your body, reduce the load on your adrenals, and nourish yourself when you need it most!