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Why Do I Crave Sugar When I'm Stressed?

a stressed woman at work

Why do I eat when I am stressed? And why does sugary food make me feel better? Stress eating is more than just a saying. Stress unleashes hormones in the body when combined with the effects of sugary and fatty foods, send you headlong towards overeating. Studies have connected weight gain and stress, and according to a Psychological Association of America, roughly one-quarter of all Americans confess to feeling over stressed for long periods of their lives.

How stress levels affect appetite

In the shorter term, stress can actually reduce a person’s appetite. The nervous system transmits messages thought the adrenal system to encourage the kidneys to elevate the release of the hormone epinephrine. Epinephrine (adrenaline) triggers the body's need to fight or flee, a hyped-up physiological state that puts eating to the back of a person’s mind.

But the effects of adrenaline are short-lived and if the stress continues, it begins to affect the body in a totally different way. The adrenal system release a different hormone known as cortisol, and this hormone boosts appetite and helps increase motivation, including a person’s desire to eat.

Valentine sweets

Once one stressful event is over, your cortisol levels in your body should balance out, but in many circumstances, the stress does not go away. If the stress does not fade, then the hormone continues to overpower your natural appetite resulting in food cravings, many of which are for sugary food.

Stress research has also shown that it has a direct effect on the types of food a person craves. A lot of research has shown that emotional and physical distress results in cravings for high-calorie food and fatty foods. The studies have indicated that this might be caused by a combination of the elevated level of insulin and cortisol in the body. These have also been closely linked to the hunger hormone ghrelin.

After you eat either sugary or fatty foods, your stress levels are dampened, this affects your stress-related emotions and responses more than anything else. This is why these foods are known as comfort foods, as they appear to directly contribute to the stress-induced eating habits of many people.

Why do people stress eat?

Some studies suggest that men and women have different ways of dealing with stress, they have shown that women are more likely to eat and men to drink alcohol or smoke. One such wh study in Finland conducted on over 5000 men and women showed that the obese women in the study became that way as a result of overeating triggered by stress.

Another study conducted by Harvard researchers have stated that stress from careers and other sorts of problems correlates directly with weight gain. But the study says this is only true with regard to subjects who were overweight at the start of the study. They believe that overweight people already have high levels of insulin and thus are pre-ordained to gain more weight when under stress.

So why do we crave sugary foods?

When we eat sugar, it releases the happy hormone 'dopamine' which makes us feel good. This is the same hormone that is released when people smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs, and in itself can become addictive. Because sugar makes us feel good, it can quickly become the go to food whenever we are feeling down.

Once you start eating anything with high sugar content in any one sitting, and bear in mind 80% of processed and packaged foods contain added sugar, it can become easy to get trapped in a sugar addiction cycle.

What is the sugar addiction cycle?

This happens when your blood sugar is spiked by eating high sugar foods, insulin is released to bring your blood sugar levels back down, but results in overcompensation and low blood sugar levels. When the brain detects low blood sugar it sends triggers to bring these levels back up, which we experience as cravings, as sweet, junk foods can bring blood sugar levels up quickly.

Infographic showing the stages of the sugar addiction cycle

The bottom line

In conclusion, people crave sugar when they are under stress due to the combination of hormones that are released by both the stress itself and the consumption of sugary foods. And when these factors combine, they can become habitual, resulting in a pattern of reaching for sweet treats whenever we become stressed.

If you would like to cut down on your sugar this website is full of blogs offering advice and help. I have written a blog here outlining all of the benefits of cutting down on your sugar intake.

If you would like to break your sugar habit, you can sign up to my 21 Day Sugar Detox here.


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