Holiday stress triggers

Easy Does It

For those of us in the U.S., our thoughts are turning to the preparation of a Thanksgiving feast tomorrow and the pleasures of having family and close friends gathered round the dining table (and in front of the television for a few football games).

But once dinner is over and the table is cleared, everything changes. Because that’s the approximate moment when the year-end holiday season begins. And for many of us, that means extra levels of stress heaped on top of the large and small stresses we already deal with every day. Just the passing thought of the coming holiday crush may be enough to send us into the kitchen looking for comfort in another slice of pumpkin pie.

If you tend to eat when you feel stressed (which, I confess, I do), don’t be too hard on yourself, because a new study reveals just how normal it is for stress and food consumption to be linked. In other words, your desire to load up on comfort food isn’t the result of a weak will; it appears to be a powerful need, driven by your body’s biological reaction to stress.

Raging hormones

The body has two basic responses to stress: acute and chronic.

When your boss tells you you’ll have to work on Saturday – the same day your daughter is giving her first piano recital – your response is acute; your stress level spikes.

But when you add that and other acute stress sources to dozens of daily and long-term stresses, the typical response is chronic. Your chronic stress level is more like a plateau with a gradual rise.

The chronic response to stress triggers the unpleasant side effects we associate with stress: depression, weight gain or loss, mood swings, a weakened immune system, and even damage to brain cells. And it’s this chronic response that researchers at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) studied by examining the reaction of laboratory rats that received artificially increased levels of a glucocorticoid steroid hormone; a hormone that has been shown to naturally increase in both humans and rats when stressors are abundant and ongoing.

The UCSF team found that within 24 hours of stimulating the chronic stress mechanism with glucocorticoids, the rats responded with pleasure-seeking behavior. Specifically, the rats had a clear preference for sucrose and lard. When glucocorticoid levels are high, other hormones are also stimulated that help perpetuate the overall chronic stress response. But researchers observed that as the rats increased their abdominal fat, the stimulation of the additional hormones was gradually inhibited, and glucocorticoid levels returned to normal.

Hit the brakes

In a UCSF press release, one of the co-authors of the study, Norman Pecoraro, Ph.D., said, “Our studies suggest that comfort food applies the brakes on a key element of chronic stress.”

More research will need to be done before the UCSF researchers can conclude that the intake of comfort food is actually a biological response that combats stress. But even if they can prove this to be the case with humans, an intake of the types of foods that create abdominal fat would be a poor way to treat any health problem. Abdominal obesity (as opposed to weight gain in other parts of the body) has been shown to raise the danger of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.

Nevertheless we can put to good use the apparent connection between stress and food cravings.

In a recent Johns Hopkins University study, many people who were tested and shown to be suffering from long-term stress reported in interviews that their stress levels were not high. So some of the most-stressed subjects weren’t even aware of how much stress they were experiencing.

To successfully manage chronic stress, it’s important to understand that a craving for comfort food is actually a pleasure-seeking reaction to stress. And it’s also important to make the distinction between a food craving and actual hunger. When constant cravings are recognized as a possible stress warning sign, then healthier activities can be employed to satisfy the pleasure-seeking impulse. The UCSF researchers note that exercise, meditation, yoga, and sex can all provide the needed stimulus to quiet food cravings.

So what will it be? 20 sit-ups, or a slice of pie? Not much of a contest there when you’re craving comfort. Pie wins every time. But there’s no question about which choice is the healthy one. And if the UCSF researchers are correct, the healthy choice will take care of your cravings AND help manage your stress.

Happy Thanksgiving

I certainly don’t want to be a wet blanket on anyone’s Thanksgiving celebration. If you don’t gorge yourself on carbs and sugars there’s no real danger for most of us in enjoying a slice of pie after our meal.

But when holiday stress kicks in, a brisk walk or a few minutes of quiet breathing exercises will do more good for your waistline and your frazzled brain than any amount of pumpkin pie.

“Chronic Stress and Obesity: A New View of ‘Comfort Food'” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 100, no. 20, 9/30/03,
“Comfort-Food Cravings may be Body’s Attempt to Put Brake on Chronic Stress” UCSF News Services News Release, 9/10/03,
“Hidden Stress Underlies Heart Attacks” Reuters, 11/11/03,