How To Stop The Vicious Cycle of Stress Eating
I overeat because I’m stressed, and I’m stressed because I overeat.
Do you identify with the above statement? It seems like a joke, but it’s an honest issue that many of us have faced before, if not struggling with right now.
When we’re stressed, we tend to overeat, and when we overeat because of stress, it’s not just that we feel ashamed about the food we just finished, but our brains are actually put in a dysfunctional state that encourages even more emotional eating. This is because emotional eating triggers certain hormones that signal nutritional deficiency, and can inhibit the synthesis of emotion-lifting neurotransmitters such as serotonin. This deficiency contributes to our low mood levels and inability to cope with stress, further provoking the vicious cycle of emotional eating.
Here is a more complete picture of this process (*or if you’d just like to read my solution, scroll down to subsection “The Solution To Stopping Stress Eating”):
How Low Stomach Acidity Contributes to Stress
The role of stomach acid in depressive symptoms is an interesting one — while it’s hard to argue against the fact that the food we eat has an impact on our mental health, most individuals don’t really think about how it’s also about how we digest and breakdown this food that plays a vital role in our emotions.
Having an acidic stomach environment is incredibly important to how we absorb nutrients from our food — if our pH isn’t low enough, instead of deriving and utilizing essential vitamins and minerals found in our food, it causes inflammation.
The inflammatory response triggers stress hormones which encourage overeating, and we are also left malnourished because of improper digestion. This malnutrition impacts the way neurotransmitters are synthesized in two ways, worsening symptoms in individuals who are already under stress.
1) Amino Acids
Most neurotransmitters are built using amino acids. For example, the amino acids phenylalanin and tryptophan are used to create the neurotransmitter serotonin, also known as one of the “happiness” neurotransmitters, for its ability to elevate our mood.
If we have low stomach acid, we suffer from improper breakdown of protein, malabsorption of essential amino acids, and subsequently neurotransmitter deficiency, as there is nothing to synthesize the neurotransmitters with. When we lack mood-elevating neurotransmitters like serotonin, we are led to depressive symptoms (Wright 2001).
2) Vitamin B12
In a similar vein, low stomach acidity means that our bodies might not be deriving important vitamins in adequate quantities. In particular, vitamin B12 plays a critical function in building and metabolizing neurotransmitters.
Vitamin B12 deficiency has been correlated with depression in multiple observational studies — an interesting case study illustrates a patient who was treated with antidepressant and antipsychotic medication for months, before being checked for any nutritional deficiencies. The woman suffered from lethargy and excessive crying for years, but within two months of B12 treatment she returned to her baseline level of mood, with no follow-up treatment required (Berry, Sagar, and Tripathi 2003).
How Stress Contributes to Low Stomach Acidity
Because digestion is not essential when it comes to immediate survival, stress causes the body to divert blood away from digestive function and instead send itself to our muscles and brain. The decreased blood flow causes the production of digestive enzymes and juices to decrease, leading to low stomach acidity over time.
And so the vicious loop begins: with low stomach acidity, we suffer from malnutrition and neurotransmitter deficiency, decreasing our ability to cope with stress, causing us to overeat, further inflaming and overwhelming our digestive function, more stress, lowered production of digestive enzymes, and so on.
The Solution To Stopping Stress Eating: Three C’s Solution
Let me preface my solution with the understanding that no one likes stress eating. When we catch ourselves engaging in it, we want to stop. We don’t feel good about ourselves. But when our brain is encouraging us to continue to eat in amounts that induce more stress, this can be extremely difficult and hurt our confidence as it makes us feel powerless and out of control.
The first step is when you find yourself stress eating, don’t punish yourself with more negative thoughts like, “I’ve already done too much damage, I’m just going to keep eating until I feel better” — because continuing to eat won’t actually stop the desire to eat.
What you should do instead is follow what I call the 3 C’s Solution: chew chew chew.
While restricting yourself and stopping may feel difficult, I find that prolonging the process of eating is much easier in comparison. Keep chewing, and chewing, and chewing. Anything between a range of 30–60 chews per bite is adequate, and will help the process of easing the vicious cycle of stress eating.
When you chew, allow yourself to taste the food and enjoy it, and you’ll find that your desire to eat will slowly fade. This is because as you chew, your salivary glands release the digestive enzyme amylase which begins the chemical breakdown of starches. This signals to the brain to release pancreatic digestive enzymes which complete the digestive process, as well as hormones that signal satiation which promotes calmness.
When our mouths aren’t busy, we are tempted to put more food in our mouths, even if we’re not particularly hungry — but if we prolong the process of eating, and our mouths are already busy chewing food, we can’t be scarfing down more food. Simply working to slow down the process of eating can help us escape the vicious cycle of stress eating, a much easier and practical solution than traditional advice to “just stop eating”. This sort of cut-and-dry advice doesn’t get at the emotional aspect of our problem, and only contributes to our guilt and inadequacy when we are already struggling. But continuing to chew? Chewing we can do.
The Key Takeaway
In this way, we should be looking at mental and physical health as interconnected systems. The role of nutrition and food to our mental health should not be trivialized; not just the food we eat, but how our bodies breakdown and digest the food we eat deserves just as much attention.
We can’t just be popping supplement and vitamin tablets in hopes that our nutrient uptake will be sufficient, but we must address deeper issues related to our digestive system. This means paying attention to our bodies for symptoms, addressing stress, resting adequately, and trusting that a balanced whole food-based diet can support our long-term health.
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Wright, Jonathan V. MD & Lenard, Lane Ph.D. (2001). Why Stomach Acid Is Good for You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux and GERD. M. Evans & Company.
Berry, N. , Sagar, R. and Tripathi, B. M. (2003), Catatonia and other psychiatric symptoms with vitamin B12 deficiency. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 108: 156–159. doi:10.1034/j.1600–0447.2003.00089.x