Johns Hopkins Stress and Overeating



JF-Expert Member
Feb 3, 2009


JF-Expert Member
Joined Feb 3, 2009
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In my clinical practice in nutrition and weight management, I've always considered unmanaged stress to be an important piece of anyone's problem with unhealthy weight. That's why I routinely assess my clients’ stress levels. Stress and overeating

Now a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins suggests that chronic stress can even cause temporary changes in certain genes in ways that increase the risk for several

mental disorders. This is bad news for those of us who are not only stressed out, but who are also struggling with our weight, since it's well-known that emotional turmoil can by itself trigger a powerful urge to overeat.

The researchers gave one group of mice something called a corticosterone, the animalequivalent of a stress-response hormone known as cortisol that is found in humans. Over time, cortisol has been associated with increased anxiety, as well as with

weight being deposited around a person's middle. The researchers gave a placebo to a second set of mice, which were acting as the control group.

How chronic stress can affect certain genes

At the end of a 4-week period, the corticosterone mice were exhibiting plenty of anxious behaviors and, at that point, the researchers gave the stressed mice a gene-expression test. This test revealed that, compared to those of controls, the genes of the stressed

mice harbored considerably more of a protein created by a gene called Fkbp5. Further, the researchers noted that these genetic changes in the stressed mice persisted for

weeks, even after the mice stopped receiving corticosterone.
But here's the kicker: Earlier studies in humans have found a link between this Fkbp5
gene and such mood disorders as depression and bipolar disorder.

Stress's double-whammy

We've long known that feelings of stress can cause many of us to overindulge at the table in an effort to soothe ourselves. Now here comes this Hopkins study suggesting that the condition of stress, all by itself, can change certain genes in a way that will genetically predispose us to serious mental disorders--which can also trigger food

Our cave-dwelling ancestors had to flee from danger so often that their bodies finally learned to activate the "fight-or-flight" response. Today, however, those of us prone to feeling stressed out simply can't run away--and so we oftentimes choose to lose ourselves in food, thus fleeing mentally.

Escaping the discouraging cycle of overeating whenever we feel stressed

We mustn't let overeating become our main means of calming ourselves down. Here are a few healthier behaviors that will help to take food out of the equation:

  • Take a breather. While sitting in a chair, perform 5 slow inhales and exhales. Puff out your chest and bellyon the inhale and then deflate them during the exhale, imagining that your bellybutton is meeting the back of your chair. This activity can calm your whole body by bringing on a "relaxation response."
  • Try aromatic oils. Consider keeping some vials of lavender oil handy, or some other soothing essential oil that can help bring on a sense of calm. I even have lavender oil in my office and sometimes let the scent pervade the place--my clients love it too--and at night, I'll sometimes put a few drops on my pillow or sheets.
  • Get centered. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, or mindful walking might help you to de-stress by hooking you up with your breathing. Just plain, old walking works too, as long as you try to stay focused on your breathing and not think about whatever has been causing you anxiety.
  • Take regular meals. Make sure you eat meals at regular intervals, no more than 5 hours apart. This helps keep your blood-sugar levels stable, which allows your body to better handle stress.
  • Avoid caffeine. Limit caffeine as much as possible, since it can increase both anxiety and the production of stress hormones, and can even mimic the body's "fight-or-flight" response. (Probably wouldn't hurt to cut back on sugar, as well.)
  • Eat healthy carbs. Eating a healthy diet of whole foods can assist your body in battling stress. Eat lots of healthy carbs in the form of fruits, veggies, whole grains (these contain B vitamins, a.k.a. the "stress vitamins"), and unprocessed, low-fat, dairy products.
Source: Stress and Overeating

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