Tuesday, 14 June 2011


A chronic, but not life-threatening, health problem has forced me to take some time off work lately.  It has not been a happy vacation sort of break. I’ve been really stressed about it.  Work is most often a happy place for me.  I love to cook.  It’s a creative outlet for me and I miss it when I can’t do it. 

Due to my health problems I’m also unable to pursue many of my leisure-time creative activities.  There is a distinct and often violent tremor in my hands that prevents me from doing any sort of artwork that requires fine attention to detail.  These activities are a calming process for me, and without them worries and stress are accumulating at a rapid rate.

All of this worry has me turning to comfort foods on a pretty regular basis.  Mashed potatoes are making frequent appearances on our dinner table and, unless I’ve eaten them all, the cookie jar is never empty.  These carbohydrate cravings got me wondering what it is that prompts us to seek out comfort foods when we’re stressed, and it turns out that the culprit may be cortisol.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the cortex of your adrenal gland.  It serves many functions in your body, including glucose metabolism, insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, and inflammatory response. Cortisol helps in responding to and coping with stress, trauma and environmental extremes. Normal levels of cortisol increase energy and metabolism and help regulate blood pressure. Cortisol also enhances the integrity of blood vessels and reduces allergic and inflammatory responses.[1] 

Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone because, when your body experiences a fight or flight response, extra amounts of cortisol are produced.  The effects of these short-term cortisol boosts include a quick burst of energy, heightened memory function, a burst of increased immunity, and lower sensitivity to pain; all very important when you are experiencing great stress. 

Fight or flight reactions are usually followed by a relaxation response.  Once the perceived danger has passed, our bodies relax and our adrenal functions return to their normal levels.  Unfortunately, when we are experiencing long term stress a relaxation response does not occur, and the resulting continued high cortisol levels can be harmful.

The effects of chronic high levels of cortisol can include suppression of thyroid function, cognitive impairment, increased blood pressure, decreased bone density,  decreases in muscle tissue, and blood sugar imbalances. High levels of cortisol can also lower your immunity and inflammatory responses, as well as slow down wound healing.  Long-term high levels of cortisol contribute to the retention of abdominal fat, with associated high risks of heart disease and stroke. A chronic high concentration of cortisol is toxic to brain cells and can cause short-term memory loss. A lifetime of high cortisol levels may be a primary contributor to Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia. It is also a primary cause of osteoporosis.[2] 

Wow!  That’s pretty scary!

Specific to my question about comfort food, though, is the fact that in a fight or flight response our body uses cortisol to increase the flow of glucose from your tissues and into our bloodstream. It does so in order to increase energy and physical readiness to handle the threat that evoked the reaction. We experience this as an increase in appetite and, because our body is responding in a manner that requires quick energy, we want carbohydrates. Thus, when we are feeling the stresses of the day, we go in search of cookies, or mashed potatoes, or mac and cheese or…whatever our particular comfort food craving happens to be.

Where is all this leading?  Well, to the possibility of a different response to my comfort food cravings.  Next time I want that cookie or that scoop of mashed potatoes, I’m going to try going for a walk, or having a bath, or listening to music; some activity that will relax me.  It’ll be interesting to see if my craving subsides.


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