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The COVID-19lbs - appetite, your brain, and stress

Apr 22, 2020

I was chatting with a friend, performing our new "quarantine check-in" routine (thanks, #socialdistancing), when I mentioned a specific source of dismay. 

"Despite working out more than usual, I've managed to gain 8-10lbs over the last month," I complained.

"And I just can't see the point of eating anymore," she replied, "I make the girls these beautiful lunches and then just can't touch it myself. Nothing appeals."

*ding!*

That's the sound of my brain latching on to an interesting idea or phenomenon, beginning the search for "The Why." 

Thankfully, I've been doing lots of research on the body's response to stress, and the dots began to connect right away.

Why is it that, when under duress, some of us lose all control of our food intake, finding solace only in carbs, and putting on fat even if we're kicking our butts in the gym on the regular?

While others waste away, food turning to ash in their mouths, their desire for sustenance vanishing with a "POOF" when they're stressed?

And, you know what? Some people experience BOTH phenomenons! Either fluctuating from one state to the other, or eating next to nothing while still gaining fat!

Let's take the perspective of our stressed-out, survival-driven brains for a hot second. 

When you're stressed, your brain shifts into a sympathetic nervous dominant state. This is known commonly as "fight or flight" and it explains a lot of the physiologic responses of our body under stress.

The brain operates as if you're still living in the stone age, when threats to your survival came in the form of wild, furry animals (or people, I suppose) who were trying to eat you.

So, when the brain sounds the survival alarm, it preps your body to take off running. It can't be bothered to do things like digest food (or produce sex hormones...but that's a topic for another time), so your appetite dries up.

This is a helpful adaptation, leaving more blood flow and energy for muscle activation, heart pumping, lung capacity...you know...the stuff you need to out-run an annoyed mastodon. 

So, while it's a good thing for our bodies to do in the short term, if our nervous system gets "stuck" in fight or flight mode - either because it's been primed to be hyperactive (because of previous trauma, genetics, social conditioning...THE LIST GOES ON), or because the stressor just won't let up (ahem, global pandemic, anyone?) - food doesn't appeal.

This can also cause some major digestive issues if it goes unresolved, and can become a negative feedback loop for stress and more stress.

OR, as I told my friend, 

"Your brain is like, 'We can't eat because we need to shuttle resources away from our digestive tract so we can run from the enemy!'"

Lightbulb moment!

OK, so let's say that the stress lingers, and our body is forced to adapt in the long-term to being in "fight or flight."

That's when another system comes on board, one that's made for chronic, lower-level stress states. This system is called the HPA axis, and one of its main jobs is to secrete cortisol, our long-term stress hormone. 

So, for those of us who seem to put on fat at the very whiff of stress, our brains have become serious "preppers."

The constant presence of elevated cortisol causes our blood sugar levels to increase (just in case we need to fuel our muscles to run away) which, in turn, eventually causes fat to be deposited in the form of adipose tissue. 

The body is "saving up for a rainy day" that it's sure, absolutely certain, is coming soon because of all the constant stress.

Cortisol ramps up appetite and even the motivation to eat! Double whammy!

OR, like I told my friend, 

"My brain is like, 'Dude, sh*t's gettin' real and we might need to head for the hills and survive on nothing for awhile so FATTEN ME UP FOR THE COMING APOCALYPSE!"

Some of us have hyperactive "fight or flight" tendencies, some of us are more prone to the effects of lingering stress, and some of us got both goin' on

Either way, your body's stress response helps determine if you gain or lose "The COVID-19lbs".

BUT, the good news is that lots of healthy, holistic, non-drug strategies exist (some of them within your very self) to help you "turn off" that fight-or-flight response and calm your cortisol flood!

I cover a lot of them in my online courses, Connecting the Dots: mini-courses and The 10-Day Stress-Away Reset.

OR you can start by downloading my FREE guide, "What to Eat When You're Stressed"

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