Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary "comfort foods" can lead people to gain weight. The February 2012 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter explains the truth behind "stress eating" — how stress increases appetite — and what people can do about it.
In the short term, stress triggers the brain to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. But if stress persists, the adrenal glands (located atop the kidneys) release the "stress" hormone cortisol, which increases appetite. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol may stay elevated.
"Fortunately there are steps people can take to reduce their stress levels," notes Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. Here are some suggestions:
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