Stress less, eat wisely

by Cherie Calbom, MS

This article was originally published in November 2007


The question is, “What’s going on internally when we’re stressed that triggers binging on bad food and, more important, what do we do about it?” Let’s look at ways to create a healthier lifestyle.

While the holiday season surely is festive, it also can be stressful. The insights here from a nutritionist might help us come out the other side — happy and healthy.

(November 2007) — Recently, I heard from a client who said she had been through a very stressful period and had fallen back on her “drug of choice” — sugar. Binging on sweets, she began experiencing physical symptoms that were like a warning light on her dashboard indicating, “Your cortisol levels are soaring!”

Most of us have had times when our stress levels were out of control due to a particular event or a combination of stressors that continued day after day, causing us to want to eat and eat, and eat some more. What we usually reached for wasn’t nutritious, whole foods. How many times have you craved a big green salad when you were stressed out?

The question is, “What’s going on internally when we’re stressed that triggers binging on bad food, and more important, what do we do about it?” Let’s look at what’s happening with our biochemistry and then at ways to create a healthier lifestyle to manage pressures and anxiety more effectively.

Stress hormones promote binging

Stress is caused by too many daily pressures — anxiety, overwork or trauma, for example — and it stimulates the body to release a cascade of stress hormones including glucocorticoids, along with other hormones and chemicals that interact with the brain and central nervous system.

Glucocorticoids, of which cortisol is the best known, are produced by the HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) system and are a subclass of biochemical molecules called steroid hormones. Cortisol is what hits your brain and shuts down your ability to communicate effectively when an angry person catches you off-kilter.

Cortisol is very important in marshaling organs and systems throughout the body to deal quickly with a threat. Known as the “fight-or-flight” response, this reaction is imperative when we have to respond quickly to danger, but it’s destructive on a continual basis.

Prolonged levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream lower your immune system, slow down your thinking, create blood sugar imbalances, raise blood pressure, weaken muscle tissue, decrease bone density, cause cravings, and increase fat on your stomach.

If stress persists more than 24 hours and stress hormones remain elevated, we experience anxiety, and the central nervous system releases more stress hormones. This “chronic stress response” promotes mechanisms of coping, which includes food intake.

Science has shown that chronic high concentrations of stress hormones increase the desire for high-sugar and high-fat foods. So, it’s no wonder that we get fat deposits on the abdomen — and elsewhere!

Also affected are neurotransmitters (brain chemistry messengers) such as serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. Norepinephrine and epinephrine are stress hormones; serotonin is a chemical involved with both well-being and appetite; and dopamine is a chemical involved in reward-seeking behavior.

Add to this collection ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone that can become elevated, and leptin, a hormone that helps control appetite, which usually decreases, and you have a full-blown setup for binging.

All these neurotransmitter and hormone changes also can affect our sleep — the very thing we need when we’re stressed to help restore hormone balance and renew our body and soul. We may find we can’t fall asleep easily or we wake up in the wee hours, around 2 or 3 a.m., and can’t get back to sleep. Then we’re tired, stressed and hungry the next day.

If this cycle continues, we can develop an acute case of insomnia and, you guessed it, uncontrollable cravings.

Recent studies on sleep have proven that people in a state of hormone and neurotransmitter imbalance due to a short night of sleep reached for high-carb foods like pizza, pasta, chips and sweets. No one craved fruits and vegetables.

If the stress does not diminish, the abnormally elevated concentrations of hormones and neurotransmitters will continue to promote binging and abdominal obesity. Unfortunately, this particular type of obesity is strongly associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

So while occasional relief from anxiety with sweets or fatty foods may not be too harmful, habitually attempting to relieve stress with high-fat, high-sugar foods can be destructive to the body and perpetuate a cycle of stress-response eating, weight gain and illness.

Better solutions to calming our nerves are to choose healthier foods and optimal lifestyle choices that sustain us in times of stress and to develop ways to manage stress more effectively on a daily basis.

Lifestyle choices for health and stress reduction

If you strengthen your body, build up your immune system, and learn to manage daily pressures and challenges, you’ll be better prepared to handle the major stressors when inevitably they come along. Following are some tips to help you keep your hormones in balance, your life in order, and your soul on-kilter.

Exercise at least three times a week. Just walking can relieve mental stress and increase endorphins — the feel-good chemicals. Research shows that the more intense the exercise and the higher your body temperature, the more likely your appetite will be suppressed for several hours following exercise, and the better you’ll sleep at night.

Choose the best carbohydrates. Avoid pick-me-ups that include sweets, unhealthy fats and refined flour. Aim for vegetables, veggie juice, fruit and nutrient-dense whole grains. Eat 30 to 35 percent of your total calories as fat, emphasizing good fats.

It’s known that low-fat dieting provokes stress, anxiety and depression. Healthy fats should include fish, fish oil, flax seed, nuts and avocados, along with the best cooking oils, which are virgin coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil.

Good fats produce satiety — that feeling of fullness where you’re less apt to snack later on. Also, avoid MSG (also labeled hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract and malted barley) as it causes addiction to the food it’s in.

Develop good sleep habits. Getting too little sleep increases hormones such as coritsol and ghrelin — the munchies hormones. When we’re in a cycle of poor sleep — choosing to sleep less than 7 to 9 hours a night, or we have trouble falling asleep, or we awaken in the night and can’t get back to sleep — we may have imbalances of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine.

Reducing stress is important, but neurotransmitter imbalances aren’t easily corrected. An amino acid program tailored to a person’s individual imbalances, and determined by a urinalysis test, can be very helpful in correcting the problem. Within just a few weeks, I’ve seen people experience normal sleep patterns again and shed carb cravings as their neurotransmitters returned to normal.

Reframe your situation. Sometimes we intensify our stressful experiences by the way we think about them. If you view a situation differently, you may gain a new perspective — one that causes you less stress.

Mental and emotional stress can be caused by pessimism, type-A traits (hard-working, anxious, overworked), and self-sabotaging thought patterns such as, “I’ll never succeed,” “I can’t find the right relationship” or “I’ll never have enough money.”

Stress-induced growth. Remember, setbacks in one area of your life aren’t pervasive to all areas. Turn your challenges into opportunities. When adversity strikes, this can be a chance for personal growth, creativity and a better life than before.

From Beethoven to Abe Lincoln to Chris Gardner (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), stress-induced growth has become reality for countless numbers of people, including me. Growing through stress is your choice and opportunity.

Revamp your self-talk. Making matters worse than they are is like adding kindling to a fire. The “poor me” attitude catapults us into victim mentality, where we can get seriously stuck.

Intercept negative mind chatter. Keep your thoughts positive. For example, if you don’t have enough money to pay your bills, tell yourself there’s a creative solution and you’re going to find it. This might lead to new career opportunities and a better salary or a better method of budgeting what you have.

Take a mini-vacation. When the pressure increases, a vacation can be a marvelous de-stressor, but we can’t always get away for a week. How about a day or two? Most of us can take a mini-vacation.

Go to the mountains, lake, ocean or anywhere that feeds your soul and de-stresses your body. Walk, bike, ride, picnic, take a nap or read. Completely relax. Your goal is to de-stress.

Organize. Reduce stress and worry by organizing your home, car and workplace. When you have a place for everything and your stuff in is order, it will save you significant time that otherwise would be spent looking for things and stressing you out.

Tension tamers

There are many ways to calm down quickly when you suddenly get blindsided by stress and feel overwhelmed. The following are easy ways to regain your composure:


Research has shown numerous health benefits from humor and laughter, from strengthening the immune system and reducing food cravings to managing pain — and even reducing stress hormones. Have you ever felt like you “have to laugh or you’ll cry?” And after a good laugh, have you experienced a cleansed feeling? Develop a sense of humor; it provides good physic relief.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).

PMR is a technique where you tense and release all your muscle groups, leaving your body feeling more relaxed. Start with your head, shoulders, arms and work down your body, tensing up and then releasing all muscle groups.

PMR can be done anywhere, anytime, and, with practice, you can release virtually all the tension you’re feeling in a matter of seconds. This can help you feel calmer and better able to handle whatever comes your way.

Take a mental break.

In the midst of the fray, steal away for a few minutes of quiet with some visualization, prayer or progressive muscle relaxation and restore your peace of mind. Five minutes and you can be back in balance again.

Take a breath.

When you’re not in a position to leave your “pressure post,” you at least can take a breath. Take a long, deep breath.

You can practice right now. Take a deep breath from your belly. Hold it for a count of three and let it go. Getting more oxygen into your body helps release physical tension and the best part is that you can do this anytime or place, even when your demanding situation isn’t letting up.

Cherie Calbom, MS, is the author of 16 books including “The Coconut Diet,” “Juicing for Life,” and “Sleep Away the Pounds.” Cherie earned a master of science in nutrition from Bastyr University, where she now serves on the Board of Regents. In her nutrition counseling practice, she specializes in neurotransmitter and stress-hormone rebalancing. For more information, see

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