Chronic stress not only makes you want to reach for junk food, but it can also cause some uncomfortable digestive problems…

It’s an appropriate response to a real danger, but while your body is well-designed to cope with short bursts of life-saving stress, sustained stress takes its toll.

Being perpetually flooded with the stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) from your activated endocrine system draws your body’s energy away from other systems, such as your digestion and immunity.

Your autonomic nervous system (ANS), comprising sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems, controls your involuntary responses.

“Stress hormones switch on the sympathetic nervous system to increase your heartbeat and send blood to the areas to cope with the emergency. In the process, the effects of the parasympathetic system in charge of other functions, such as digestion, are dampened. This can lead to unwanted digestive symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, stomach cramps, malabsorption and irritable bowel symptoms,” says Maryke Gallagher, registered dietitian and spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa),

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“Stress may also exacerbate symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux in susceptible individuals and those suffering from stomach ulcers.”

Stress and emotional eating

While some individuals may lose weight while stressed, those who are inclined towards emotional eating can go the opposite way.

“Research has shown that in susceptible individuals chronic stress can lead to overeating especially highly palatable, less nutritious foods that are high in highly processed carbohydrates, sugar, salt and unhealthy fats,” explains Gallagher.

“High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. The hormone ghrelin that regulates hunger, may also play a role. The happy hormone serotonin may have an impact as the consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods may trigger its release, which can have a momentary calming effect on stressed individuals. Unfortunately, the consumption of these foods can have a negative effect on blood sugar levels, causing spikes and drops in blood sugar that then make one feel agitated, fatigued and hungry and grabbing for the same sugary, highly-processed foods that initiated this process, leading to a vicious circle of poorer dietary choices.”

Mpho Tshukudu, also a registered dietitian and ADSA spokesperson, says that adrenalin can trigger overeating or eating unhealthy foods to calm the response after the body has used up glucose for the stressful situation.

“One may eat mindlessly whilst thinking about the problem at hand and not even focus on the taste of foods, portions and your satiety level.  Elevated cortisol creates physiological changes that help to replenish the body’s energy stores that are used and depleted during the stress response. It makes you want to eat more to obtain more energy. This leads to increased appetite and cravings for sweet and fatty foods, which can lead to fat gain particularly around the belly,” says Tshukudu.

Eating junk food linked to psychological distress

Eat to beat stress

While emotional eating is a negative way of dealing with stress, just like physical activity and mindfulness, nutrition has an important role to play in managing stress. Here are some ways to use food to help you cope with stress:

1. Keep your blood sugar levels stable

Eat regular meals to avoid blood glucose dips. This helps to keep hunger and hormones such as insulin in check. Skipping meals, on the other hand, can exacerbate symptoms of stress and erode your stress response.

2. Fill up on healthy foods

Focus on a diet rich in plant-based, high fibre foods such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and whole grains, as well as lean proteins and healthy fats.  This will assist in better blood sugar regulation to better manage the short-term effects of stress while protecting the body against chronic disease in the long run.

3. Watch the junk

Avoid highly-processed carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods. Be careful of regularly eating treat foods, such as chocolate in order to make you ‘feel better’.

Likewise, be aware of not increasing your intake of caffeine or alcohol during stressful times.

4. Boost healthy gut bacteria

Consider including fermented foods in your diet, or taking a probiotic supplement to keep your gut microbiome healthy.  Research has shown that stress affects the amount and type of healthy bacteria in the gut, which in turn can affect our immunity that may be suppressed due to stress.

“There is a complex two-way connection between the digestive system and the brain, called the brain-gut axis. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a stressed brain can send signals to the gut.  This system is sensitive to our emotional state and affects digestive illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion and heartburn. It also affects the whole body function,” says Tshukudu.

During times of prolonged stress, keeping your healthy eating regime on track, or changing to one, can have positive physical and emotional impacts.

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.