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.