What is your comfort food of choice?

Turning to food in periods of extreme stress or depression is second nature to most of us. Whether it is keeping a tub of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer or that bar of milk chocolate you carry around in your bag most of us tend to crave rich, high sugar foods to help cope with a particularly hard day. Food and emotion seem to go hand in hand and there are few of us whose diets or eating habits aren’t changed by periods of depression or ongoing stress. Ongoing depression is often linked with weight loss and lack of appetite, however those suffering with “atypical” depression can often find themselves at the other end of the spectrum – craving food and needing an increased amount of sleep.

But what causes the connection between our mood and the foods we crave?

Feeling better after eating your favourite bar of chocolate is not part of your imagination – and there is a reason so many of us turn high sugar foods after a bad day. In fact, “comfort foods” – well, they do just that – they provide us with a temporary “comfort” or high, especially foods high in fat and sugar, such as; ice cream, chocolate and cream cakes.

Recent studies have found that there is a particular connection between craving sugary foods after high stress situations. The human body has a number of different reactions and ways to cope with internal stress – and most recently it has been discovered that the levels of the hormone cortisol (released after extreme danger or stress) are lowered almost instantly after an intake of sugar.

After a particularly stressful or dangerous situation – for example almost being hit by a car or narrowly avoiding a road traffic accident – the body begins to release cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which prepares your body for a life-saving response. The hormone is carried from the brain around the body causing your heart to race and metabolism to shift, as well as restricting and diverting blood flow to your fast-acting muscles – preparing you for fight or flight.

19 females took part in the study, with their diets and cortisol levels monitored over a period of 12 days. Eight of the women consumed beverages only sweetened with artificial sweeteners, whilst the remainder of the women consumed sugary beverages. The women were also tasked with completing a series of arithmetic tests that were slightly above their capabilities (known to increase cortisol production).

Before the study and subsequent diet changes, the women were found to have no difference between the two groups, well as by the end of the study women who only consumed beverages with sugar were found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol. Equally, the women who consumed sugar were also found to have increased activity in the area of the brain that controls fear and stress. Senior author of the study Kevin D. Laugero – a nutritionist – explained that no one should use sugar as a stress reducer, however he also stated “the finding is intriguing because it suggests that there is a metabolic pathway sensitive to sugar outside the brain that may expose new targets for treating neurobehavioral and stress-related conditions.”

Another recent study in California has suggested that those who suffer with chronic stress have a continuous production of the hormone cortisol – often causing the person to suffer with anxiety and hyper alertness, sometimes leading to increased levels of depression. Chronic stress also triggers a number of other different reactions within the body as stress levels continue to rise – one of them directly causing us to seek out foods that will provide “comfort” as well as high energy such as cream cakes or chocolate-based treats.

Whilst reaching for sugary snacks is not often recommended, those who suffer with chronic stress would find their energy reserves depleted after a short period of time. The bodies constant production of cortisol and your bodies reaction to it leaves little choice for those who are struggling with chronic stress. High sugar and fatty foods are a fast and easy way to instantly replenish your constantly low energy levels – the calories are stored as fat in the abdomen (close to the liver where it can be quickly metabolised) where they send a signal to the brain to stop production of cortisol and cease the stress response.

Whilst more research needs to take place, there is a definite connection between our moods and sugar consumption – and a reason behind why so many of us turn to high fat or sugary foods during periods of stress, anxiety or depression – with many of us having little choice in reaching for something sweet during periods of extreme or chronic stress.

If you’re suffering with chronic stress or depression speak to a professional about how to best manage your symptoms and to come up with a treatment plan to assist you on the journey to feeling better.

Speak to us today about our online therapy service, available soon.