Stress and The Food Reward System
Written by: Kevin Cann
Understanding the dynamics of weight loss has always been a hot topic in the literature, and will continue to be until we can fully understand the dynamic components of the disease. Most people will attempt various diet and/or exercise programs in feeble attempts to shed unwanted pounds. Nutrition programs and exercise programs are the main focus of people when attempting to lose weight, but there is another area that people may want to look at.
The more I talk with clients and the more I read in the literature, the more I believe stress and our food reward system play major roles in this epidemic. We all know the daily stressors we encounter like traffic, money problems, and poor sleep. What people may not realize is that a diet that alters proper energy pathways can also cause stress. Improper glucose uptake and poor mitochondria function are two common examples of this. Another major cause of this is any type of anemia.
If a person is anemic it becomes nearly impossible to fix the damage stress has caused to the adrenals due to the lack of oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, glucose becomes our primary fuel through glycolysis. Glycolysis ends up burning through sugar quickly and this can lead to food cravings and hypoglycemia. Any type of inflammation can impact the mitochondria and affect ATP production in the cell. Think about that statement the next time someone tells you, “Everything in moderation.”
When we encounter stress, our HPA axis increases its activity. Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt elicit a strong response from our opioids. Opioid release seems to be a strong defense mechanism to an overactive HPA axis (Tanja, 2007). Meal choice can directly affect mood. Certain foods can reduce anxiety and irritability and place us in a more positive place. This is due to the effects food can have on opioids, serotonin, and dopamine. Chronic exposure to foods eliciting these responses will down regulate our sensitivity to these transmitters and force us to eat more to elicit the same mood altering response. This can lead to weight gain (Gibson, 2006). Our reward system is masterfully set up to push us towards things that are beneficial to our survival, such as sex and food. The question I would like to ask is, what if all those times we reached for highly rewarding foods when our HPA axis was firing caused our circuits to be rewired to actually seek out these foods during times of high stress?
Let us look at a typical drug addiction scenario. Some trauma causes a person to become depressed. They try a drug for the first time and feel amazing. They chronically seek out that “high” feeling and become addicted to the drug. Replace the drug with highly rewarding foods that elicit the same neurotransmitter response as the drug. This is, in my opinion, a major underlying cause of the obesity epidemic.
These highly rewarding foods we are choosing end up altering our energy pathways by increasing our insulin response or promoting inflammation. This causes the cycle to continue to spiral downwards towards metabolic syndrome. When beginning a weight loss program I encourage everyone to begin a stress management program as well. When people have struggled on a paleo diet in my practice it is usually due to the drive to eat highly rewarding foods. This drive may be mitigated with proper stress management. Losing weight is a hard battle and hopefully as we learn more we will develop better strategies to defeating it.
Gibson, Edward (2006). Emotional influences on food choice: Sensory, physiological, and psychological pathways. Physiology and Behavior.
Tanja, Adam (2007). Stress, eating, and the reward system. Physiology and Behavior
Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.