We all have a favorite “comfort food.” Who doesn’t love curling up on the couch after a hard day at work with your favorite snack? Stress-eating may seem like a harmless way to relax, but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than you may realize. To better understand why we stress-eat and how stress causes weight gain, we’ll need to explore how certain hormones work in your body.

Leptin and Ghrelin: Your Drive-in and Diner Hormones

There are several hormones that impact your weight, but the three most important are leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol. Our fat cells produce leptin, a hormone that prevents you from accumulating too much fat (weird, right?). Leptin is responsible for making you feel full. During a meal, your body checks in with your fat levels that say, “We need this much energy,” and when you’ve had your fill, leptin comes in and hangs the “closed for lunch” sign on your stomach (unless, of course, it’s dinner or breakfast . . . it has several signs). 

On the other hand, your stomach produces the hormone ghrelin that tells you it’s time to find an open diner. Ghrelin causes cravings and makes us feel hungry. After experiencing a stressor, our stomach sends out the ghrelin alert to make you want to eat. Why? When you are stressed, your body primes itself to use a lot of energy. After a stressor, your stomach thinks you need to replenish your fuel levels. Ghrelin is often the culprit behind stress eating. This hormone knows the best and quickest way to give you fuel is through fast-acting carbohydrates like sugar, flour, white rice, and starchy vegetables. It also knows that the fast-acting part will be used up and something needs to follow it — and what better chaser than fatty foods? 

Leptin says, “No more food,” while ghrelin says, “More, please.” When life happens and stress piles up, those hormones are not regulated. Ghrelin puts your refrigerator on speed-dial, and leptin does its best to keep up. After a period of time, your body can begin to think leptin is a hormone not worth its attention. This leads to leptin resistance, a condition where your body no longer receives signals that you’ve had enough to eat. So, you eat and eat some more, never feeling quite satisfied. It’s important to note that leptin resistance does have another cause — cortisol. Enter the liver. 

The Liver: Your Emotional Baggage Check Point 

Your liver is a pretty amazing organ. It fights bacteria and viruses that make you sick. It makes the majority of the stuff that’s necessary for your blood to clot. Not only that, but it produces bile to digest your food. Perhaps one of the most important things your liver does is remove toxins ingested while eating or drinking. Similarly, when you breathe in pollution or absorb chemicals through your skin, your bloodstream transports those toxins to your liver to dispose of them. 

Most of the time, your liver does a pretty good job of handling these responsibilities. However, when you experience stress, this process comes to a screeching halt. Your liver doesn’t quit working when you’re under stress — It just changes focus. When you experience fear, worry, or other negative emotions that are indicators of stress, your liver coordinates with your adrenal glands to activate your fight, flight, or freeze response.  

The flight part of that stress response causes your body to kick everything into gear to help you escape a stressor. The liver starts producing glucose (sugar) and fats (in the form of cholesterol) to provide the fuel you need to run far and long.  Meanwhile, the adrenals produce cortisol which shuts down bodily functions deemed unnecessary during an emergency, like digestion. At the same time, cortisol amps up your energy levels by moving sugar into your bloodstream. 

This stress response is perfect for helping you escape from wild tigers or bears. In fact, that’s why it’s there — to give you the necessary energy to escape life-threatening situations. Herein lies the problem! When you are running late for work because your child has a fever, and you need to make alternate day care arrangements, you’re stressing about being late for work, but your body is fueling you to escape a grizzly bear. Your body simply can’t distinguish between those tense moments of “the daily grind” and a dangerous experience. It keeps pumping out the energy you need to deal with a life-threatening situation . . . all day, every day. Our bodies are not meant to be in a constant state of stress. We are designed to experience stress momentarily, then use up all that excess energy (sugar and cholesterol) to escape any threats.  

What happens when you’re under chronic stress and don’t utilize this excess energy to escape to safety? Oftentimes, it winds up being stored as fat on the belly, hips, and thighs. However, this is only one part of the problem. Remember, your liver cannot multitask when it’s stressed. Its entire toxin-cleaning factory shuts down in order to deal with your stressors. Simultaneously, cortisol shuts down your digestive system (because the last thing you need to do when you’re running away from a grizzly bear is make a pit stop). 

The consequences of this are twofold: when food is not properly digested, it ferments in your stomach, and you don’t get the nutrients you need. This problem is compounded by the toxins in your system that the liver cannot handle when you’re under stress. As a result, these toxins are moved to handy storage places called fat cells. The more toxins that need to be disposed of, the more fat that accumulates. To make matters worse, the body is resistant to shedding this fat because it doesn’t want toxins floating around where they can potentially do damage. 

Exercise: The Stress-Melting Solution

You’re probably hoping for some good news at this point. Here it is: exercise reduces adrenaline and cortisol levels and releases neurotransmitters called endorphins. These ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters are the body’s natural painkillers. They combat stress and promote feelings of optimism and relaxation. We aren’t meant to endure long periods of chronic stress, but we also aren’t meant to be sedentary creatures. Exercise shouldn’t only be viewed as a means of losing weight. It’s nature’s very own form of stress management. 

Incorporating physical activity into your daily life has a direct effect on your overall stress level. In addition to exercise, lifestyle changes that help cut down on stress, building healthy habits, or taking up a hobby that fosters relaxation can work wonders on decreasing stress.  

Stress management is an important part of living a healthy life. Don’t let stress keep you from losing weight and experiencing all that life has to offer. Revitalize provides a holistic and comprehensive approach to weight loss that addresses multiple factors contributing to weight gain. We also offer weight loss programs for employers so you can share our personalized support and the holistic health benefits with your whole team.

Our board-certified coaches create an exercise and diet program that suits your lifestyle and unique needs. Contact Revitalize today to start your weight loss journey and experience real, long-lasting results.

Get the Amazon #1 best-selling book Fear No Food or book your initial consultation with Revitalize to learn more about our award-winning weight loss program HERE.