comfort food and stress

Cortisol, Stress and Comfort Foods

Posted by

I am reading The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease right now and came across an interesting tidbit. (Note: the book is amazing and full of great information, this is just a tiny piece of what I have learned.) So, we all have pretty much heard about Cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that is released when we are stressed. Because of this, it is sometimes called “the stress hormone”, so it is easy to think of cortisol as a bad thing. But it isn’t. Cortisol’s job is to help you when you are stressed out. Just take a look at some of the things it does:

cortisol information
Cute little Cortisol graphic from the Hormone Health Network.

When you are stressed – you are almost hit by a car, for example – Cortisol increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension. This is designed to help you deal with the stress and get out of the situation you are in. Cortisol also turns down those body functions that you don’t need during stress, including digestion and reproduction.

This all makes sense right? If you are running from danger, this is exactly what you would want your body to do. The other thing it does, according to The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is that it increases cravings for calorie-rich foods. Why? Because after you have been running through the woods away from bears or pumas, you are going to need food to recover. You’ll have used up a lot of your stored energy, and now your body wants to replenish it.

And what is more calorie dense than comfort foods?

This is something I have been wondering about for a long time. Why do we crave comfort foods in times of stress? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand that the answer is in the name – they provide comfort. But why? Intellectually we know that anxiety, depression, and stress are better managed with healthy food, sleep, and exercise. So what gives?

Well, as you may have heard before, the body doesn’t recognize different types of stress. It doesn’t know the difference between being chased by a bear or having a deadline for a huge project coming up at work. This was demonstrated to me beautifully yesterday. I was in a very stressful work situation. People were upset and emotions were running high. When it ended and I walked away, I had a strong and immediate craving for chocolate.

It was a powerful craving, but I was able to step outside of myself for a moment and ask, “What is really going on here?” I think it helped that I had eaten not too long before, so I knew hunger didn’t have anything to do with it. I realized that it was the calorie dense food cravings caused by a spike in stress levels and cortisol.

I thought about the snack box at work, but I didn’t want to eat junk food. Then I figured that if my body wasn’t able to tell the difference between unhappy coworkers and a boulder falling near me, it wouldn’t know high-calorie food from low if it was packaged right. I just happened to have some celery sticks and Laughing Cow cheese. I also had some carrots, and I thought that they are naturally sweet and might be enough to convince my hormones that I was eating sugar.

You know what? It actually worked.

It’s one thing to have chocolate because I want chocolate. But it’s another to feel like stress has control of me. Especially something like this – I don’t want an uncomfortable situation at work to change my eating plans for the day. No one should have that power.

That is why I find all this information fascinating! I love learning about how the body works. Knowing what I know now, it was easier for me to identify what was happening and why. That allowed me to make choices that fit with my values.


Hormone Health Network

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

Leave a Reply