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Over Eat Or Under Eat

Over eat or under eat? That is the question.

Not having enough food to eat is a stressor. If you just ate a great meal but you do not know where your next meal is going to come from, that is a stressor. Eating too much is a stressor. Choosing not to eat - anorexia - is a stressor. None of this is surprising. What happens to our appetites when we are chronically stressed? Some of us crave Muddy's pies and cupcakes. Some of us deny food. I remember a woman who reported being extremely stressed with her life. She was a doting mother of three, selfless wife, devoted daughter, and fearless salesperson for a pharmaceutical company. Not to mention her church commitments and her volunteer work for a women’s shelter in Memphis. She said she was too stressed to eat. Yet even though she claimed to have no appetite, she managed to find the desire and time to eat over three thousand calories per day by frequenting fast-food drive thru windows around town, as well as a few donut shops.

Many scientists have studied stress and eating. It turns out that two thirds of us overeat (hyperphagia) when we are stressed, and one third of us undereat (hypophagia) during stress. Scientists recently found that stressed laboratory rats have eating patterns similar to stressed humans. We know that stress induces eating behavior changes, but given similar stress states within a group of people, we cannot accurately predict what kind of change any one individual will manifest.

Let us suppose you run into a grizzly bear and survive the encounter. During the terror filled episode the appetite and energy storage functions of your body come to a screeching halt. Stored energy is utilized to help you get away. It seems logical that after the calamity has passed, you would begin to stop energy immobilization, restore body fat and glycogen reservoirs, and then an increase in your appetite would help you to bring in more energy to store.

Hormones are probably responsible for our appetite changes during stressful times. Three hormones in particular help regulate our response to stress: CRH, which is released from the hypothalamus, ACTH, which is released from the pituitary, and glucocorticoids (cortisol), which are released from the adrenal glands.

When stress occurs, CRH is released from the hypothalamus to provoke the pituitary to release ACTH into the blood. CRH also activates other areas of the brain to help turn on the sympathetic nervous system and to increase vigilance and arousal during the episode. It also suppresses appetite.

On the other hand, Glucocorticoids have many systemic effects, included in them is the stimulation of appetite. Scientists have identified the areas of the brain involved in appetite stimulation that are influenced by glucocorticoids. Another fascinating fact: glucocorticoids stimulate our appetites for starch rich carbohydrates and sugar -- good old fashioned southern comfort food.

Even though it appears our hormones are at odds with each other when it comes to stress related appetite, timing of their release determines everything. CRH bursts within seconds of an acute stress. ACTH takes about fifteen seconds or more to rise in the blood stream, which gives way to elevated glucocorticoids within several minutes. During sustained stress episodes when both CRH and glucocorticoids are elevated, appetite is suppressed. In the recovery phase, CRH is absent from the circulatory system and glucocorticoids abounds. Appetite increases drastically for carbohydrate rich food.

If the duration of the stress is relatively short, less than several hours, one can envision that the stressed out individual in recovery phase has an increased appetite. However, if the stressful event lasts for days, even in the recovery phase the appetite will be suppressed.

The type of stressor is key to whether someone is an overeater or an undereater. People who experience frequent intermittent episodes of stress throughout the day end up having frequent short bursts of CRH but prolonged increases in blood concentration of adrenal glucocorticoids. Guess who's going to be eating Howard's Donuts all day long?

Another important variable dictating appetite after stress is the rate at which glucocorticoid levels return to normal, post stressor. Some people cannot metabolize their glucocorticoids very well; others over secrete their glucocorticoids during stress. Over-secretors and under-metabolizers do not eat more than others when stress is not affecting them, but they are more active eaters after stress.

Interestingly, people who choose restrained eating habits are more likely than others to overeat during stress. Restrained eaters actively restrict their caloric intake from food. They may not be dieters. They may not be overweight. At any one time, sixty-six percent of our US population restricts their calories for one reason or another. I seldom restrict calories, but I often restrict food groups such as starches and complex carbohydrates to reduce intestinal fermentation or insulin secretion.

There is no question that stress affects our appetite and food choices. Some of us overeat during and after stress, while some of us undereat. Perhaps the type and pattern of stressors, as well as our system's reaction to stress, dictate our appetite more than we recognize. Our Westernized human capacity to expose ourselves to intermittent psychological stressors is a big reason why many of us become overeaters during stress. We have a large amount of stress all the time. It never seems to subside, and neither does our appetite.

Take a moment to stop what you are doing. Think about the stress in your life. Reflect on what you are eating. Are you eating to live or living to eat? I hope it is the former and not the later, but only you will know for sure.


Posted by Amanda Sanders at 9:45 AM
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