Crave carbs when you're stressed? You can thank your hormones for that.

Lainey Younkin, M.S., R.D.
April 22, 2020
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GETTY / Grace Cary

Stress is the body's response to a trigger, or stressor, that sets off a physiological response. You know the feeling—your heart starts to beat faster and you feel anxious. This response is actually a good thing, at least in the short-term. But long-term stress, as you might imagine, is not great for your health. It wreaks havoc on your hormones and can lead to weight gain, inflammation, anxiety and chronic diseases.

While you can't control every stressor in your life, you can help keep your hormones balanced through diet, exercise and your lifestyle. Read on to learn how.

What are stress hormones?

Imagine you're walking down the street when a lion jumps out in front of you. Immediately two hormones are released—adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline, also called epinephrine, triggers the "fight or flight" response. Blood vessels contract and send blood to your heart and lungs.

Cortisol, also called the "stress hormone," increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, breathing and muscle tension. Your body says "give me glucose now," a.k.a. sugar, a.k.a. energy, so you can think and act quickly. Simultaneously, it suppresses the digestive and immune systems, which aren't needed for your immediate survival.

What's the difference between acute and chronic stress?

An acute stress response (like in the imaginary lion scenario) is normal. The surge in hormones alerts you to wake up, pay attention and figure out if you're going to fight or flee. But when you live in a chronic state of stress, cortisol and adrenaline stay elevated, leading to restlessness, anxiety, overeating and chronic diseases.

Work, relationships, finances and the current COVID-19 pandemic can all lead to chronic stress.

Can stress cause overeating?

Stress is linked to overeating. We seek comfort when stressed, and food is comforting. Bread, pasta and desserts make us feel better, temporarily, because sugar releases dopamine, the "feel-good" hormone.

Additionally, elevated cortisol increases appetite. When you're not stressed, glucose is taken from the blood to cells for energy and any extra is stored as fat. When you're stressed, the body keeps insulin from being released. It doesn't want insulin to take glucose to your cells because it needs the glucose for the immediate fight-or-flight response.

Deprived of glucose, your cells send a signal to the brain that says, "I'm hungry," stimulating appetite. Because you're stressed and want something comforting, you're likely to reach for foods high in carbohydrates. This can cause a vicious cycle, raising your blood sugar again. Any extra glucose or carbs, that your body doesn't need is stored as fat. Over time this cycle can lead to weight gain.

How does stress affect hunger hormones?

Hunger hormones play a role too. "In some studies stress may increase ghrelin [the "hunger hormone"] which may increase appetite," says Isabel Smith, registered dietitian and hormone expert at Isabel Smith Nutrition and Lifestyle in New York City. "Higher ghrelin means higher appetite."

"Decreased sleep also seems to increase stress hormones—and may affect the foods people want," says Smith. Studies show that lack of sleep raises both cortisol and ghrelin, a double whammy for overeating and weight gain.

How can I keep my hormones balanced?

There are two ways to help deal with stress:

  1. Remove the stress trigger
  2. Control your response

The first is doable, but often difficult, because it isn't easy to get rid of a boss, work project, family member or a global pandemic. The second is challenging too, but certain things can help. Managing stress in a healthy way keeps hormones balanced and health conditions at bay, here's how to help do it.

1. Eat a healthy diet.

Eat vegetables, protein, whole grains and healthy fats at each meal. This combo helps stabilize blood sugar and keep you full. Eating enough throughout the day prevents overeating at night.

Swap saturated and trans fats like red meat and fried foods for anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats found in salmon, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed. Saturated fat, processed foods and refined carbohydrates cause inflammation and keep cortisol levels high.

2. Have some sweets if it makes you feel better, but don't use food as a long-term coping mechanism.

"Sometimes, eating something carby or sweet because we're stressed is just what's going to happen," says Anabelle Clebaner, MS, RD, RYT, registered dietitian and founder of Wellspring Nutrition.

"The problem is when we continue to use food as a coping mechanism for stress. Taking a mindful moment to ask yourself why you are craving a donut before going for it can be helpful too. Perhaps what you really need in that moment is to call your mom, get a hug or massage from your partner, or take a calming bath. Relying on sweets to manage stress is not effective for reducing stress, or making us feel better for more than a few minutes. Of course, sometimes all you need is a sweet treat to move on—and if that's the case go for it. Just be aware that it is not your only way to deal with stress, and that you have other tools in your toolbox to help manage stressful situations."

3. Remove stressors from your life.

Get rid of the things that increase stress if you can. "If you find that work is the cause of your stress, try checking your email less often, and not opening up your computer right when you wake up," says Clebaner. She also recommends turning off the news. These are a couple of simple ways to nix the stressors in our environment.

4. Find other ways to manage stress.

Clebaner recommends, "getting outdoors and in nature, breathing exercises like box breathing, putting away screens during meal times, stretching, using calming essential oils like lavender, drinking herbal tea and taking a bath.

5. Get enough sleep.

Lack of sleep alone throws hunger hormones out of whack. Combine that with stress and your ghrelin ("hunger hormone"), leptin ("satiety hormone"), and cortisol will be imbalanced. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

The Bottom Line

Stress raises the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which increase blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate and muscle tension. This acute response helps you make a decision and act quickly when there's a perceived threat. But when you experience chronic stress, cortisol and adrenaline stay elevated causing increased hunger, anxiety, inflammation and health conditions.

It's okay to "eat your feelings" every once in a while. Sometimes a brownie does make you feel better. But food shouldn't be a long-term coping mechanism. Find other ways to manage stress like meditation, massage or exercise. A healthy diet, adequate sleep and low stress will balance hormones and lead to optimal health.