Updated: Jun 3
In this article, we will discuss something we all experience at one point or another… STRESS! Nowadays, we tend to be overworked, overstimulated and overwhelmed. In 2018, a Statistic Canada survey demonstrated that 21% of population over the age of 12 perceived their life stress as being extremely high. Whatever your stress is related to, it can have an impact on your health (mental and physical) and on your eating behaviours. In this blog post we will explore what the effects of stress are on our nutrition and health and what we can do about it!
What is stress?
Our body always strives for balance (i.e homeostasis). For example, our body has mechanism in place to keep our body temperature at 37 degrees (like sweating or shivering), our pH stable, electrolytes balance and so much more. Stress is defined as something that comes and disturbs our body’s homeostasis (1). Our bodies can be stressed right before an exam or when we don’t have enough money to pay rent, but it can also be stressed when we are fighting a cold or when we are hurt.
Types of stress:
Acute Stress: Sweaty palms, heart palpitations, butterflies in your stomach, loose bowel movements… do these symptoms sound familiar? This type of stress is called acute stress and we experience it before a big exam, a presentation, a new date or a musical performance.It is a short leaved reaction to an event. We call this the “fight or flight” response. For our caveman ancestors, physical danger was real. Therefore, their bodies needed to be ready to either fight a bear for example or run away as fast as they could Nowadays, we don't have the same types of physical threats however we have the same physical reaction to acute stress. This type of stress can be positive as it can help us finish assignments on time, have laser focus for an exam or help us run faster or throw a ball more powerfully. Acute stress normally lasts only a short while and usually has no negative effects on our health(if you are otherwise healthy individual) (2).
Acute Stress Disorder: Acute stress following a traumatic event such as car accident, assault, being a witness to violence,... Acute stress disorder usually lasts for 3 days to 1 month (any longer than 1 month is considered chronic stress).
Chronic Stress: The main type of stress that we will be focusing on in this article is called chronic stress which has negative effects on our long-term health. Most of the stressors that we deal with today are not the stressors that our ancestors had, we aren’t too worried about a bear chasing us. We deal with stressor that last longer such as constant pressure from school or work, financial stress or stress in our relationships (3).
What happens to our bodies when we are stressed?
Our body has developed a great response to acute stress and uses the same mechanism to fight chronic stress which is not as effective (3). When we are stressed our body produces hormones called catecholamines (ex: adrenaline) and cortisol (2). These hormones tell our body to make energy available for the “fight or flight” response (2). These hormones also channel the energy towards the areas of the body that it thinks will be useful for “fight or flight” (arms, legs and brain for example) and diverts energy away from the other functions of the body deemed less useful, including the digestive system (2). Catecholamines (adrenaline) are only released on a short term basis in acute stress, cortisol on the other hand is released the whole time the body is under stress and is linked to many health issues (4).
How does stress affect our nutrition?
The body’s response to stress varies between individuals, some people gain weight when they are stressed, others lose weight (3). Stress is linked to changes in eating habits. Some people will crave and eat more “comfort foods” that are high in fat and sugar. We tend to crave these foods because they provide us with the most energy (i.e calories) which is what our thinks it needs to fight against stress (3). On the other hand, some people under high stress situations eat less, especially in acute stress situations (2). You know, those people who "forget" to eat when busy/stressed or simply do not feel hungry.. (I am definitely not one of them!). You may think it is a better response to stress as you are not adding on calories however once these people start eating normally again, they are more likely to gain weight (3).
Hormonal interactions: Cortisol is a stress hormone present in chronic stress and helps our body increase the energy available to fight against the stressors (4). High levels of cortisol promotes high levels of blood glucose (sugar) which can lead to insulin resistance and possibly type 2 diabetes (1,4). Cortisol also leads to storing energy as fat (4). High levels of cortisol can also lead to decrease in immune system, decrease serotonin secretion, decreases libido and increase blood pressure. On the positive side, high level of cortisol can increase memory, short term focus and attention and decreases sensitivity to pain.
Can stress lead to fat accumulation?
Yes! Your body perceives stress as a threat (remember, your body does not know the difference between a bear ready to attack vs. a deadline for work/school) and cortisol is then release which leads to storing energy as fat (3,4). Chronic stress is also linked to higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases (1).
Can stress prevent weight loss attempts?
Yes! In a stressful situation, your body wants to hold on to energy stores (i.e. fat and glucose stores) to fight against the stressors (again, your body wants to protect you and save energy for later use if needed). This coping mechanism prevents us from losing weight (5).
Other impacts of stress on nutrition:
When we are stressed, the energy is taken away from the digestive system which can lead to stomach pain, bloating and discomfort (4). Stress is also linked to inflammatory bowel syndrome and diseases like Crohn’s disease and colitis (4).There is new research being done at the moment about the interaction between the microbiome and stress and the gut microbiome is affected by stress and how the microbiome can affect our stress and impact our food choices (6). To learn more about the microbiome, check out our last blog post on the Gut Micorbiome.
How can nutrition support us with stress?
Firstly, we want to make sure that nutrition is not the source of your stress or an added stressor. Here are some ways you can reduce your stress around eating:
Plan your meals ahead of time. For some, it can help to plan what you’ll be eating for the week and have the all foods you need easily available. Take away the decision making around food on a daily basis. This makes it easier to stick to your balanced diet without adding more stress around food.
Try meal prep. Cooking all your meals on the weekend (or when you are free) can be a way to save time and reduce stress. Again, you take away decision making around food on daily basis. PLUS like we learned earlier, being stress leads to craving more comfort foods... if you do not have your food ready, you are more likely to make less nutritious choices to comfort your stress.
Slow down and breathe: Digestion is NOT a priority when stressed. Take the time to slow down, breathe and eat slowly. Reduce stress before a meal to optimize absorption.
Explore intuitive eating: Intuitive eating is a way of eating in tuned with our bodies hunger and satiety cues. One of its main goals is to ditch diets which can lead to food stress/anxiety. By learning how to listen to your body, you are less likely to make choices based on outside expectations or events. For more information about intuitive eating, check out this previous blog post.
What to eat when you’re stressed?
Balance is key. Stick to your balanced meals and avoid skipping any meals while you are stressed. Stress can upset our stomachs so try to choose foods that you know will sit well with you (bland foods, soups, bananas, crackers, plain chicken, toast…). Reduce fried foods and heavy meals that create a big load on your digestive system (Remember, our bodies will not put much energy in digesting when we are stressed). Do not rely on caffeine to give you a boost. Too much caffeine may have adverse effects such as increase cortisol, anxiety and energy crash. Also, remember to slow down while you eat to allow your body to digest and absorb nutrients efficiently. Lastly, stay hydrated (with water!!).
What happens if I crave “junk food” when I am stressed?
Enjoy it, mindfully! Food is more than fuel. Food can also be used as pleasure and comfort from time to time*. When we allow ourselves to have the food that we crave, we can enjoy it mindfully without guilt and move on. If you are debating if you should or should not eat something, you are using a lot of mental space focusing on food instead of what is actually stressing you!
* If you notice you are using food for comfort every time you are stressed/emotional or using it as your crutch, then it is important to address. Please check out this previous blog post if you struggle with emotional eating.
In out fast paced lives, it is foolish to think we can avoid stress... However we can learn manage it more efficiently! Stress affects many aspect of our life including our nutrition and our metabolism. Here are some other ways that we can manage our stress:
Physical activity (30 minutes/day of light to moderate activity)
Relaxation/meditation (If you are a newbie, try guided meditation!)
Be in nature
I hope this article was beneficial and brought you value! If you need help regarding your nutrition during stressful/emotional times, please reach out.
Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Thank you Céleste for this great article!
1) Russell G, Lightman S. The human stress response. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2019 Sep;15(9):525–34.
2) Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607–28.
3) Rabasa C, Dickson SL. Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2016;9:71–7.
4) Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017 Jul 21;16:1057–72.
5) Xenaki N, Bacopoulou F, Kokkinos A, Nicolaides NC, Chrousos GP, Darviri C. Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial. J Mol Biochem. 2018;7(2):78–84.
6)Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2019 Aug 1;28:105–10.
7)Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association.
8)Hormone Health Network."Cortisol | Hormone Health Network." Hormone.org, Endocrine Society, 1 October 2019, https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/cortisol