If you’ve ever worked your way through a few too many slices of pizza after a rough day at the office or polished off a plate of brownies after staying up all night with a sick child, you know what it’s like to reach for food not necessarily because you’re hungry, but for psychological comfort.
Many of us self-soothe with food occasionally, but if your food cravings are hijacking your health and wellbeing you could be dealing with a habit driven by stress or an addiction that has spiraled out of control. Either way, it’s time to get curious about what’s driving you to overeat and make a plan so that you can feel good inside and out!
The Gut-Brain Connection’s Main Cast of Characters
Any time you get a stomach cramp or “butterflies” in your stomach when you’re nervous, upset or stressed, you’re experiencing gut-brain communication.
A main character in the gut-brain connection is the Vagus nerve, which is a primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system that oversees the body’s mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate (1). The Vagus nerve sends messages between the gut and the brain. Interestingly, 90 percent of those messages originate in the gut.
One of those messengers is a neurotransmitter called serotonin which is found in the brain and the digestive system. About 95 percent of serotonin is produced in the lining of your gastrointestinal tract. When this vital hormone is in balance it controls and stabilizes our emotions and moods. It also helps regulate sleep, digest food, heal wounds and maintain bone health.
Dopamine, another type of neurotransmitter, helps us feel pleasure. It plays a key role in our ability to self-motivate, set goals, focus, learn and plan. Helping to regulate the immune system, about 50 percent of dopamine is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. (2). Exercise, music and sleep are natural ways we boost dopamine, and food is another.
In a perfect world, the messengers and nervous system would all play well together, but then life happens. Situational and chronic stress, trauma and even genetics can affect our brain and gut chemistry leading to food cravings, binge eating, and food addiction which can culminate into an assortment of mental and physical conditions.
Are You Eating Your Feelings?
Emotional eating causes us to eat not because we are hungry, but because we are trying to feed a feeling like sadness, guilt, grief, hurt, boredom, or any number of other emotions.
Different people have different cravings. When you’re sad, you might reach for ice cream while another person might prefer potato chips. For many people, simply experiencing a difficult emotion cues the brain to crave a particular type of comfort food. Some studies suggest that adults who experienced a traumatic childhood, for example, may be even more prone to overeat comfort foods like sugar when they’re stressed.
Chronic stress affects our brain’s chemistry and can change serotonin levels, which as you may remember, is a mood and digestion regulator. Low serotonin levels can make us more susceptible to conditions like anxiety, depression, mood fluctuations, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and eating disorders.
In an attempt to manage the serotonin deficiency, our bodies crave foods high in carbohydrates. And because low levels of serotonin can also make us more impulsive, it’s much harder to resist simple carbohydrate/high sugar foods like chocolate chip cookies, candy, chips and the bread basket.
When we eat these foods, we not only temporarily boost serotonin levels, we’re rewarded with a pleasurable burst of dopamine.
While treating yourself to one of your favorite treats might flood your body with feel-good chemicals in the short-term, if you continue to self-soothe with food, you can worsen depression and anxiety in the long-term.
Overindulgence can also trigger metabolic issues, inflammation and digestive distress. As we experience weight gain, our self-esteem drops and we are more likely to use comfort foods as a coping mechanism, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape from.
How to Manage Emotional Eating
Emotional eating and moderate cravings can be managed by learning to process your emotions in a healthier way, reframing your thought patterns and integrating stress management techniques.
To determine if stress or particular types of emotions are triggering unhealthy eating patterns for you, pay attention to the times when you find yourself heading to the kitchen to rummage through the pantry, grab a slice of cake in the break room or raid your secret candy stash. Then, stop and take these steps:
- Pause and take three breaths—the yawny kind. These deep breaths help bring your stress response down.
- Physical Check In. What’s happening in your physical body? What do you feel in your belly and the rest of your body? Are you tense? Are you feeling true hunger?
- Psychological Check In. Observe your thoughts and emotions. Am I stressed? Tired? Uncomfortable? Procrastinating? Bored?
Next, you’ll want to figure out how to better process emotions and transform stress to manage cravings. For example:
If you reach for sugary foods when you feel tired or overwhelmed, try substituting a three-minute meditation or breathing exercise. In my FREE downloadable guide [LINK], I provide details on one of my favorite breathing exercises.
If you tend to use food as an escape when you’ve overworked yourself, try integrating more breaks into your day to stretch, take a walk or call a friend or loved one.
Also consider Somatic Experiencing [Link to somewhere on your website to learn more?], which is an effective body-focused therapeutic approach that I offer for healing trauma and stress disorders.
Think You Might be Addicted to the Sweet Stuff?
We were designed to derive pleasure from food. Otherwise we wouldn’t have survived. But if you’re suffering from a food addiction, you may not be able to stop eating foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt because these foods trigger positive chemical reactions in the brain. Like a drug, no matter how much of these foods you eat, your craving isn’t satisfied for long so you reach for more.
Addiction to sugar, specifically, can take hold if we get into the habit of eating it after every meal or anytime we feel down, sad or bored. Like rich and savory foods, sugar releases dopamine and opioids in the brain, creating a pleasurable chemical reaction that leads to uncontrolled overeating. In fact, Dr. Mark Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet says “it’s the reason nearly 70 percent of Americans and 40 percent of kids are overweight.”
Like other addictive substances, the more we binge on sugar, the more we crave it and suffer when we try to withdraw from it.
Food addiction is complicated and it’s usually rooted in biological, psychological and social causes. To guide appropriate treatment, it’s vital to explore why you crave particular foods.
For some people, food is a coping mechanism for dealing with painful traumatic life events, grief or chronic stress.
Others may discover their food addiction is rooted in biological causes, like neurotransmitter imbalances, microbiome problems, hormonal issues, medication side effects, and/or genetics.
Social isolation, peer pressure, low self-esteem and/or challenging family relationships can also contribute to food addiction.
Signs of Sugar Addiction
Signs that you might be addicted to sugar include:
- Constantly craving sugary treats
- Eating sweets even if you’re not hungry or to the point of illness
- You go out of your way to acquire sweets
- Getting up in the middle of the night to eat sweets
- You crave savory or salty foods (often a sign that your body is trying to compensate for too much sugar)
- When you try to eliminate sugar, you experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue, nausea, digestive upset, muscular pain
- Avoiding social interactions, social functions or distancing yourself from relationships to spend time eating certain foods
Resolve Emotional Eating Patterns
Whether you eat to self-soothe or you think you might be struggling with a food addiction, I can help. In functional nutrition, we explore what’s causing you to eat foods that are interfering with your health and wellbeing.
By teasing out the differences between a food addiction and emotional eating and identifying the root causes, we can create a multi-layered individualized meal and psychotherapy plan that helps you reclaim your life, your health and the wellbeing you deserve.
If you’re suffering from an addiction, we’ll identify the psychological, social and biological causes driving the addiction. We can then develop a supportive, individualized plan that helps you take control of your mental and physical health, takes the edge off of cravings and helps you abstain from certain addictive foods.
If we discover that you’re an emotional eater, we’ll work together to create a comprehensive, supportive plan that helps you moderate cravings and work through stress that’s triggering unhealthy eating patterns and behaviors.
Food addiction and emotional/stress eating can be a difficult cycle to break out of.
Here are the signs that you might need to consult me or another expert.
- Eating large quantities of food
- Sense of lack of control over eating
- Eating until uncomfortably or painfully full
- Weight gain/fluctuations
- Feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment and disgust
- Self-medicating with food
- Eating alone/secretive eating
- Hiding food
- High levels of anxiety and/or depression
- Low self-esteem
- Social isolation
- Lack of compensatory behaviors
You don’t have to suffer alone. Get started HERE to set up a discovery call. Together we can get you on the path to a healthier relationship to food and a more satisfying life!