There is an abundance of literature out there proving how food can affect our mood and that I have discussed in my previous blogs.
Hippocrates first referenced the healing power of food, however, it wasn’t until the middle ages that the link between mood and food was made. We’ve all witnessed that sugar high within our own homes. Our quiet little angels have turned into crazed animals after consuming too many sweet treats or our other halves have become ‘hangry’ and cranky when they haven’t eaten.
There is also that wonderful warm tingly feeling that starts at your toes and seems to extend out from every pour of your body when you eat your favourite food. This amazing feeling can then quickly hurtle towards the overwhelming tiredness and lethargy aka the ‘food coma’ that we can fall in when we’ve eaten way too much of that favourite stodge! We have a very real and physical response to the food we eat and it can be as emotional as it is physical.
But for the purpose of this blog, I wanted to flip this concept on its head and explore how our mood in fact, can have a huge influence on the food we choose. I feel this is vastly important to discuss as if the food we choose has such a massive impact on our health physically and emotionally and our mood affects these choices, are we able to sever the links within this cycle that could possibly be feeding our poor dietary choices that negatively impact on our physical and mental health?
Understanding how your body responds to pressure can be key to managing stressful situations and minimising the effect that it has on your health. This blog will explore the affects of stress in more detail, highlighting the crucial link between stress and diet - and how nutrition can be key to dealing with tough times.
Now, there are many factors that impact your food choices, with the biggest driver being hunger, of course. But there’s more to the choices we make than purely physiological or nutritional needs. Cost, income, access, education, media campaigns, culture, family, meal patterns and beliefs, all play a part in our choices. But let’s focus on mood, and in particular, stress.
Emotional stress seems to be part and parcel of modern life which can influence behaviours that affect our health, such as exercise, smoking or food choice. Oliver and Wardle (1999) carried out a study exploring perceived effects of stress on food choice. They found that the impact of stress on food choice is complicated partly because of the many different types stress we can experience. The effect that stress can have on food intake varies from person to person but generally it will make people eat more or less than normal.
So, let’s look into the science of what is happening in our bodies when we are feeling under stress with the help of Harvard Medical School.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. A structure in the brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. The brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold and supressing our hunger.
But if stress persists — or is perceived as persisting — it's a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol may stay elevated and can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.
And as if this isn’t enough, after a stressful period, the human body can go into 'recovery mode' where appetite grows and food yearnings are hard to resist. This takes place at the same time as metabolic rates fall in order to conserve energy. This means that the body is more likely to store fat - particularly around the abdomen.
So, what’s the upshot? “More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist. This has been summed up in a cycle below:
This is very much a chicken and egg situation. When your body is craving high fat/sugary ‘comfort food’ to deal with the high levels of stress it is attempting to process, it will also lack in the essential mood boosting nutrients that our bodies need to be happy and here in can lie a future of bad dietary habits which can ultimately have a negative impact on our health. This in turn can also have a vast impact on our energy levels and our potential focus to exercise, another mood booster and topic for a future blog!
From delving through the research, it has become apparent that the fundamental element in breaking this cycle is recognising when we feel stressed and using coping strategies to not use food as an emotional crutch. Easier said that done, I’m all too aware! Not only this, but to also then choose foods that will actually have a positive impact on our mood and in fact boost our abililties to help deal manage the stress. And guess what? This will be the topic of my next blog. We will explore food groups that can really help to improve our mood and make us feel happy and healthy.
I’d love to hear about all the ways you’ve used food to help during tough times of your life, what was your ‘go to’ comfirt food and how did you break that cycle? Please feel free to leave a comment.