Emotional eating and hormones

By Breathe Therapies

07 Feb 2023

EMOTIONAL EATING?
Emotional eating is eating to feed your emotions, rather than physical hunger. Stress is the most common trigger for emotional eating, but happiness, sadness and other emotions can be triggers too. There are many reasons why emotional eating can occur, depending on a person’s relationship with food, their own body and psychological state, as well as environmental factors. Emotional eating is a common response to coping with difficult situations and overwhelming feelings. However, it is important to understand and identify the root cause of emotional eating, and if you are prone to it, learn how to respond to your feelings in a balanced way.

HOW DOES IT RELATE TO HORMONES?
Stress has been shown to be the most common trigger for emotional eating. Chronic stress can lead to increased levels of the hunger hormone ‘ghrelin’. Ghrelin, one of the main satiety hormones, usually rises around mealtimes, signalling to your brain that you are hungry. Research has shown that stress can also trigger ghrelin, regardless of what you have eaten - meaning that if you are stressed, your ghrelin levels will rise and trigger hunger, even if you are already full.

Another hormone which influences emotional eating is cortisol. Cortisol is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, making it easier to gain weight by speeding up the processes of storing these foods. Cortisol also makes us crave sugary and high fat foods as a survival response. When we lived in less comfortable circumstances in ancient times, we needed higher energy foods to survive, and our bodies would crave them to protect us from cold and to sustain intense exertion. However, chronic stress can also lead to a constant release of these hormones, leading to weight gain over time.

The limbic system, which is the part of the brain that processes emotions and memory, is also responsible for processing pleasure and motivation. Research is now showing that this system, too, is linked to eating. The limbic system triggers a release in dopamine: a ‘feel good’ hormone which improves our mood and makes us feel happier. Certain moods may increase our desire for foods which contain ingredients that release dopamine. Foods such as chocolate, processed foods, and anything sugary will trigger a release in dopamine.

Eating tends to be a distraction from unwanted thoughts and feelings, and usually food is easily available for a ‘quick fix’ to make us feel better. Therefore we can use food (though often unknowingly) to regulate our emotions and ease ourselves through overwhelming circumstances. Sometimes, this can develop into an attempt to avoid or numb all feelings, if possible, when the emotions experienced are unbearable and the individual is unable to cope.

There is another link between our energy levels and emotions which can go in both directions. If we are experiencing low mood or intense emotion, this can lead to feeling lethargic, and impact our sleep. On the other hand, a lack of sleep can make it difficult to function well, which in turn may affect our mood. We are more likely then to consume more, or higher energy foods, to get us through the day - so it is helpful to aim for 8 hours of good quality sleep each night.

TIPS TO AVOID EMOTIONAL EATING AND HARNESS YOUR HORMONES
Know your emotional triggers: If you think you are prone to emotional eating then a good place to start is by keeping a ‘food and mood’ diary, and recording when you are experiencing emotional eating (cravings or needing to eat when your body wouldn’t normally require food). Try to identify the reasons behind this. What might have brought about stress or unwanted emotional response? What thought processes underlie your automatic association of food with a particular emotion? Once you have recognised your personal triggers, you can start to practice healthier coping strategies such as yoga, mindfulness, exercise, crafts etc – anything you enjoy doing which helps to calm you, or raise your spirits!

Work on positive self-talk: Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy. We put ourselves down without realising the impact it is having on our mental health. Try to start noticing your thoughts - journalling or meditation are good for this - and reflect upon how you are talking to yourself. Ask: would you say this to a friend? When we start treating ourselves the way that we treat others, our view of ourselves can change immensely, improving our self-esteem – and this can help us avoid deeply negative emotions, and no longer feel the craving to eat our way to a happier state of mind.

Practice mindful eating: Mindful eating is an approach to food which focuses on being fully present whilst you’re eating. It also increases awareness of your thoughts, senses and feelings, during and after you eat. By fully acknowledging what you are eating, you are reminding your brain of what you have already enjoyed, making it less likely you will keep thinking that you need to eat.

Here are some tips to eat more mindfully:

  • Slow down when you are eating: this allows your body to recognise when it is full. When your stomach has taken enough food, a hormone called leptin is released from fat tissues, which sends signals to the brain that we are satisfied.
  • Avoid distractions such as TV, your phone or laptop. This can really help you to be aware of the present moment and of the texture and taste and satisfying experience of enjoying your meal.
  • Listen to your body. If we try to be aware and sensitive, and think about what it feels like in our body to be hungry, we can begin to recognize whether we feel genuinely hungry, or something else more psychological. This will take time, as we learn to tune in with our bodies and understand our hunger and fullness cues.
  • It is also important to listen to your emotions. If you think you may be feeling emotional hunger, try to hear which emotion is underneath, and allow yourself to feel it, and find good ways to acknowledge and process it, rather than drowning the experience out by eating. Again, it can take time to learn to identify these stifled voices...

For further information on how to manage emotional eating or professional and personalised advice on how to balance and eat in harmony with your hormones, call 01772 915735 or email [email protected]

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