How stress can cause overeating, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter

Published: February, 2012

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.

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