So Stressed that I’m Eating the House Down!

It’s research report season.

A significant amount of junk food has conveniently ‘disappeared’ lately. This is highly correlated with stress in honours and masters students. ‘Hmm…I wonder why?’ I think as I reach for another chocolate.

Since my last post, deadlines and assessments have been getting crazier. My research report is due next week, and I’ve got a final presentation about my research tomorrow. Honestly, I failed to heed my own post about stress management sometimes. I’ve found myself time and time again reaching for some sweet and fatty delight.

But why?


So stressed that we think we’re starving

During high stress, activation of the sympathetic nervous system kicks into overdrive. It’s the main system that drives your ‘fight or flight response’. But, it reduces a signaling molecule, leptin, which is responsible for telling your brain when you are full. If your body goes through prolonged stressful situations, like research report writing, your body starts to forget if you’re full and stores fatter. Around this time last year, I had a literature review due and I accidentally ripped my skinny jeans because…well, I wasn’t ‘skinny’.

So sleepy, I could eat a horse…and a tub of ice cream

Sleep deprivation and stress eating are well established. I’ve eaten too many lollies after having very little sleep. There are chemical messengers called opioid peptides which make you feel numb. Just like morphine and heroine, food intake can make you feel numb.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Shallow sugary happiness

But, seriously, nobody craves kale or not anything remotely healthy. We tend to reach for some sugary delight. There’s a reason why there’s a communal bowl of lollies in my office.

Eating sugar releases the ‘happy chemical’, endorphins. Understandably, we need some sugar to survive and our brain generally relies on glucose as a fuel, because of the brain’s high energy demand. Sugar is a reward. However, in chronic stress, we try to feel a bit happier with more sugar. Sounds great…until your body gets too desensitised elevated endorphin levels. Then it starts behaving as if your body has a low level of endorphins and craves for-you guessed it-more sugar!


So…how do I get away from the sweets?

Well, it’s less about the sweets and more about managing the root of the problem: stress. A study of emotional eating in pregnant mothers suggested that mindfulness can reduce stress and the reliance on comfort food. This can help with establishing healthy habits, such as sleeping well, eating ‘real food’ and healthy coping mechanisms. Hopefully, this will break the cycle of stress eating.


8 Responses to “So Stressed that I’m Eating the House Down!”

  1. Hi Aaron,
    As far as I know, the effect of short term stress is to decrease appetite. Although I am definitely not an expert in stress biology.

  2. I wish it was that simple. But in obesity, there’s a desensitization to leptin. So it’s not purely about how much leptin your body is producing, it’s also how responsive the body is to leptin.

  3. I wish that I wasn’t able to relate to this Leo, but at least it makes it a bit funnier.

  4. Well, hopefully not too many chocolates have been sacrificed Pooja. Good luck!

  5. Pooja Venkat says:

    Now I know why I emptied an entire packet of diary milk in a day. 🙁

  6. Leo Featherstone says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    I really needed to read this, so thank you. I very much like how you wove this into a story about your own experience.

  7. Iman Taleb says:

    Seriously, can we find leptin in tablets? I am sick of having to spend a couple of months after each semester to lose the weight i put on! Awesome article ans i am sure everyone can relate to it. Well done Steph!

  8. Aaron Barnard says:

    Funnily enough, I find I eat a lot less during stressful times. Recently I’ve been trying to balance my Uni life a lot more, since I always end up skipping meals if I have a lot of work due. Seems like there are always exceptions to the average!