5 Ways Stress-Eating Impacts Your Gut Health, Mood, and More, Say Eating Psychology Specialists

Indulging in a massive comfort food session might feel like a relaxing outlet in the moment...but stress-eating leads to more unwanted effects than you've maybe even thought of. Experts reveal what your body goes through when you eat as a way to self-soothe.

Why is it so hard to resist stress-eating?

Headaches, fatigue, irritability, anxiety—many of us know the signs of stress all too well. But, says one psychiatrist, stress often triggers curious appetite changes, too. “At first, high stress will increase the release of adrenaline, which can decrease your desire to eat,” explains Gail Saltz, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio. But when stress lingers, your adrenal glands start pumping out cortisol—the hormone responsible for our body’s fight-or-flight responses. Dr. Saltz explains this increases your body’s energy demands, causing your appetite to spike, and prompting cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods.

Even so, the emotional component behind stress-eating can make it tough to just stop when you know you should. “For many of us, we grew up learning that food is a source of comfort,” says Elise Museles, an eating psychology and nutrition expert and wellness ambassador for Nature Made vitamins and supplements. So even if we’re not physically hungry, it’s common to turn to food to deal with overwhelming feelings, distract from anxious thoughts, and create a sense of soothing and relaxation.

Get much more insight on what cravings might be trying to tell you—read Nutrition Pros Just Revealed What 12 Common Food Cravings Secretly Suggest about Your Health

What happens when you eat while you’re stressed?

One of the more obvious reasons stress-eating is problematic is that stress can affect what you choose to eat. As Dr. Saltz points out, cortisol motivates us to seek out foods high in fats and sugars, which is why it’s so easy—and satisfying—to mindlessly munch on junk food when a huge deadline is looming or something personal is weighing on your heart.

However, stress also triggers physiological changes in your body. These processes can amplify the negative effects of emotional eating and lead to some generally dreaded feelings—both physical and psychological:

Stress-eating can lead to weight gain

Here’s what’s interesting: it’s not only what you choose to eat that can lead to unwanted weight gain. Even if you eat relatively healthy foods when you’re stressed, multiple studies have found that cortisol slows down the body’s metabolism. This means we hold onto more energy in the form of calories, which makes it harder to lose weight.

Additionally, one 2014 study published in Biological Psychiatry study found that stress can increase our body’s insulin levels, which contributes to greater fat storage.

Read Trying to Quit Sugar? A Diabetes Patient Reveals the One Change That Saved His Life

Stress-eating wreaks havoc on your digestion

To help prepare your body to handle a stressor at hand, cortisol prioritizes survival-oriented functions in the body, like increasing the sugar levels in your blood so that the brain has more energy available to use. That means other functions that by comparison are “nonessential” in the face of a threat—including the digestive process—can get partially or significantly suppressed.

So when the gut receives less blood flow thanks to this stressy state, digestion slows, Dr. Saltz explains. This limits your gastrointestinal (GI) tract’s ability to move and process food efficiently. That’s why stress-eating can make you feel backed up and lead to stomach discomfort like nausea, constipation, and bloating. Though if de-stressing doesn’t help tummy troubles, it might be worth adding more fiber to your diet, or talking with a doctor about a probiotic supplement, to help you become more regular.

Read Culturelle Probiotic: Why It’s the Best, Say Many Shoppers and Nutrition Pros

Digestive issues can lead to some long-term gut problems

The human body can recover from occasional stress-induced constipation, but damage starts to accrue when stress becomes chronic, Museles says. “Over time, all this stress doesn’t just hamper the digestive system—it can seriously damage it, weakening the lining of your gut,” she explains.

Research published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology explains the toll of this damage. It says that chronic stress is associated with a range of gut disorders, from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and negative changes to the gut microbiome.

Read Types of Probiotics and How to Pick the Right One for Your Needs, according to Gut Health Research

Stress-eating can trigger heartburn

When your stressed-out GI tract takes extra time to digest food, your body starts producing more stomach acid in an effort to move things along. That’s why you might experience heartburn or indigestion if you’ve been stress-eating—especially if you’re indulging in foods known to trigger heartburn.

If your stress is chronic, these elevated levels of stomach acid can start to damage the lining of your gut and may lead to conditions like GERD, according to research published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences.

Acid Reflux vs Heartburn vs Gerd: What’s the Difference?

Stress-eating may impact your immune system

“Stress is the ultimate anti-nutrient,” Museles says. You can load up on all sorts of nutritious food, but if you’re stressed when you sit down to eat, cortisol blocks how well your body can absorb and store those nutrients.

In particular, stress depletes magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron, and niacin levels, according to research published in Advances in Nutrition. Impaired nutrient absorption over time increases the risk of an array of chronic diseases—and it can also open you up to a greater risk of infection and illness in the short-term. Knowing when to eat can help—read Dietitians Just Shared 6 Tips to Help Your Gut Absorb Vitamin D

How to stop stress-eating

Stress is an inevitable part of life—so it’s possible all of us will stress-eat at some point. But what you eat while you’re stressed is important, says Dr. Saltz. Even though you may crave them, “eating high-sugar, high-carb, high-fat foods may make you feel less stressed in the moment, but then the sugar spike in the blood that’s created can make you feel worse,” she says.

Read Craving Sugar? A Dietitian Says You May Need More of This Surprising Nutrient

Meanwhile, some research has shown that the right food choices can help reduce stress in general. A 2021 peer-reviewed study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who consumed more fruits and vegetables experienced lower perceived stress overall. “Complex carbohydrates (which include fruits and veggies) increase availability of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin,” Museles says, adding that selenium-rich foods such as lentils or Brazil nuts are known to support anxiety, while foods high in magnesium may promote sleep and relaxation.

Here are 11 more stress-reducing foods you can reach for next time you feel the urge to stress eat.

Also, read more about these 7 mental tricks to stop emotional eating for good.

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Sources

Gail Saltz, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio

Elise Museles, an eating psychology and nutrition expert and wellness ambassador for Nature Made

Journals:

Biological Psychiatry: "Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity."

Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology: "Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options."

Digestive Diseases and Sciences: "The Association Between Reflux Esophagitis and Psychosocial Stress."

Advances in Nutrition: "The Effects of Psychological and Environmental Stress on Micronutrient Concentrations in the Body: A Review of the Evidence."

Clinical Nutrition: "Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespan."

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.