Soaring stress levels, that come hand-in-hand with our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles, have become a bit of an epidemic. Gallup’s 2019 Global Emotions Report(1) certainly seems to back this up – 55% of the US population reported feeling stressed out during the day in 2018. Emotions like anger and worry have also spiked since 2017, with 22% and 45% of Americans reporting these feelings respectively. We’ve explored the importance of telling stress and anxiety apart, cortisol and the stress response and whether it’s not stress, but just high levels of it, that we hate

Stress in the modern world might be unavoidable, but it’s chronic stress that’s emerging to be the real problem. Everyday Health’s survey for their United States of Stress story showed that 22% of people reported turning to food as a coping mechanism as they wrestled with day-to-day stressors. 

So why is it that we make beeline for sugary treats when stress strikes?

How does stress affect your appetite?

When you’re stressed out, the body releases the hormones cortisol, insulin, and ghrelin, which can rev up your appetite and induce cravings for unhealthy foods, Harvard Medical School has noted(2). When stress levels remain sky-high, those hormones remain at elevated levels, and result in the increase of another hormone called leptin

All of these hormonal changes can come together to raise your risk for a condition called leptin resistance, which November 2010 research in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism(3) shows is linked to obesity. Research(4) has also shown an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, anxiety and depression for people who deal with chronic stress.

Want to dig a little deeper into stress and eating behaviour? Knock yourself out with this paper (5)

How does stress affect your food preferences?

It’s not just that your appetite is ramped up – it’s also about what you’re craving. Several studies — albeit mostly in animals — have shown that stress can cause an increase in the intake of food that is fatty, sugary or both – what we fondly refer to as ‘comfort’ food. High cortisol levels, in tandem with high insulin levels, may be behind this little biological quirk.

Simply put-

Once you’ve polished off that – for instance – box of donuts, a feedback effect kicks in that counteracts stress, which leads to people craving the same ‘quick fix’ every time stress strikes. Quite a vicious cycle, isn’t it? 

Besides overeating, people who are constantly stressed out also tend to get less sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to weight gain.

Can better food choices and diets help with stress relief?

Practising good nutrition and healthy eating habits can help control the damage that stress wrecks on your body. Instead of using sugar, alcohol and caffeine to keep going, why not opt for some chamomile or dark chocolate

Think leafy greens, avocados, nuts, whole-grain carbohydrates and, sometimes, even just a glass of water to unwind the next time stress strikes. Read all about the benefits of these food choices here

What are adaptogens and how can they help relieve short-term and long-term stress? 

If you have an interest in lifestyle and wellness, it’s likely that the term ‘adaptogens’ has flashed across your screen before. The term was coined in 1947(6), and refers to ‘substances that theoretically “adapt” to what your body needs and help protect against various stressors’(7)

They are said to have ‘the capacity to normalise body functions and strengthen systems compromised by stress’. A protective effect on health against a range of environmental and emotional conditions has been reported. A few examples of adaptogens would include:

What is the emerging science behind use of adaptogens for mental health?

It was between 1950–60 that the idea of using medicinal herbs to increase stamina and survival in harmful environment was developed; the concept of “adaptogens” was introduced by the toxicologist Lazarev to describe compounds which could increase “the state of non-specific resistance” in stress – a physiological condition related to various neuroendocrine-immune system disorders(8).

While many of these herbs have been used in various cultures around the world for thousands of years for their benefits, it’s only in the last 70 years that studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit ‘neuro-protective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating’ activity. 

Several clinical trials have also shown that adaptogens can increase mental work capacity in a stressful environment, specifically increasing tolerance to stress exhaustion and sharpening one’s attention. When stress strikes, our bodies go through a ‘general adaptation syndrome’ (GAS) – a three-step response system of alarm, resistance and exhaustion. What adaptogens do is allow the resistance phase to last longer by staving off the exhaustion; we are able to ‘resist’ and maintain an equilibrium to carry on despite the stress.

So the next time you find that pending deadlines are looming and you can’t concentrate, resist the urge to reach for that fourth cup of coffee, and go in for some ashwagandha or an avocado salad, instead. Not only will you avoid the sugar or caffeine crash – you won’t be left with those awful ‘quick fix’ cravings. Instead, the stimulating effect can give you that much-needed boost to soldier on.  

Besides better food habits, getting enough sleep, other lifestyle changes such as regular physical exercise and practising mindfulness and meditation can also go a long way in helping you deal with stress and anxiety.