The Question: Why does stress cause some people lose their appetite while others self-soothe with more food than normal?
A family emergency, difficult breakup or even the drastic acts of a new president can leave a person without a desire to eat. On the other hand, it could lead to a few ice cream binges. Clearly, stress and appetite are closely linked.
But why do some people eat more when they feel stressed out and others eat less? There may be a straightforward answer to this question: Short-term stress tends to make us eat less, while persistent stress tends to make us eat more. It’s all in how our brains perceive the stressor.
What makes you eat less
Intense or imminent stress triggers the same fight-or-flight response that’d be activated if your life were in danger, Mary Dallman, a physiology professor at the University of California San Francisco, told HuffPost. In life-or-death situations, the brain produces appetite-suppressing hormones and glands pump out adrenaline to put eating on hold so your body can devote its energy to survival.
But even if you aren’t physically in danger, your brain might react as if this were true, Dallman explains. And yes, this can apply to the political climate.
“Some people... are intensely threatened by Trump’s ascendency and both previous and subsequent behaviors. They can’t control the situation and are afraid of the consequences,” Dallman told HuffPost in an email. This intense stress revs up the fight-or-flight response, and they lose their appetite.
What makes you eat more
On the other hand, people may find themselves eating more in the current political climate because they’re continually anxious about the state of affairs but do not feel imminently, personally threatened, Dallman said.
Low-grade stress that persists over time like this makes the brain release cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite. Research has shown that calorie-dense foods are especially appealing to stressed individuals. Food can even act as a medication of sorts, Dallman says.
“Under mild-moderate stressors (not perceived as life-threatening), animals (and people) go for rewards of comfort foods... they eat for pleasure, not for need, and distract themselves with eating (or drinking or drugs) from the stressors,” she wrote.
So what should you do?
Whether you’re triggered to eat less or more by stress, there are ways to feel better. The Harvard Mental Health Letter suggests meditation, exercise and social support as good ways to curb stress. We also know that constant self-care, a healthy diet and talking things out with a therapist can make things better.
Because a healthy brain is a healthy you.