Stress, Cortisol, Eating, and Meditation

I’ve heard tons of people say “I eat to comfort myself.” “Eating calms me down.” “I’ve gained all this weight because I have been stressed out.” And then they guilt-trip themselves because eating is under their control, and they wouldn’t weigh so much if they just ate normally.

Why does food comfort people? Because chances are they are eating carbohydrates, rich with fat and sugar or salt. Donuts. Potato chips. Ice cream. Mac and cheese. Probably not a nice salad with broiled chicken.

What is comforting about comfort food is that it elevates serotonin, which is one of the neurotransmitters that makes you feel better. The SSRI antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor)  prevent serotonin from being absorbed by the brain cells, thus increasing the concentration of free serotonin. SSRI’s build up slowly and act over a matter of days or weeks, while comfort food spikes quickly and loses its effect quickly.

By eating, you are trying to handle stress. Stress floods the body with the hormone cortisol, which has an effect on myriad body systems. Among other things, it lowers serotonin, making you feel bad, and raises anxiety, also making you feel bad. Both can be fixed temporarily by eating. Chronically high levels of cortisol can also create more fat cells and convert glucose (blood sugar) directly into fat, rather than using it for energy. And the fat goes usually to the waist line.

It’s not just a matter of having no “will power.” There are chemical reasons for eating junk food.

I cannot imagine a child subjected to ritual abuse who did not have sky high cortisol levels every day. Keeping the knowledge of what happened to us away from our conscious selves has got to be anxiety-producing and if anybody thinks that flashbacks are stress-free, they are delusional. Basically, we live our whole lives bathed in cortisol.

It isn’t our fault that this happened. But the result of being horrendously abused is ours to deal with. And we have to deal with it day by day; there is no doing something once and everything is hunky dory.

There are things that can be done within a therapeutic framework, like EMDR and EFT. There are also effective things to bring down stress levels that you can do by yourself. Meditation soothes the whole person, and there are practices which, essentially, are meditation in motion. I’m thinking of yoga and Tai Chi. Because you are concentrating on making smooth movements, you do not try to empty your mind, and flashbacks are less likely to occur.

What is really nice about meditation in all its forms is that it doesn’t need special equipment or clothing. It’s totally portable; you can do it wherever you are. It can be a solitary practice, or, if you prefer, it can be done in groups. And it is under your control; nobody is ordering you to do it.

If you decide to try a version of meditation, give it some time. You won’t see a change the next day, and you may not recognize the changes after a week or a month. But at some point you will realize that you are sleeping better, you feel less antsy, and things that sent you through the roof no longer bother you. That’s what it feels like to have lower cortisol levels. Later on, you may even feel peaceful most of the time. That’s what it feels like to have normal cortisol levels!

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8 thoughts on “Stress, Cortisol, Eating, and Meditation

  1. This information is so helpful to me. And to many, I believe.Some things we can do to help ourselves.
    Thank You.
    from Fairlight

  2. This is supposed to be a reply to deJoly, but it is all out of order. Oh well.

    So what helps at our age to lose weight? The things that used to work don’t anymore. I don’t think it’s a matter of more stress, but of a naturally slower metabolism and very little exercise, thanks to arthritis.

  3. Dear Jean,

    Thank you for this information. I have a handful of articles on this subject, that I often refer to, to remind myself of the biochemical component. It’s challenging for me to remember, and it’s so important.

    Deirdre

  4. Thank you Jean. This posting is much needed. I’ve struggled with this one most of my life. For me, gardening, taking nature walks, and doing Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) have been especially helpful. TRE helps me to release the pent-up stress energy quickly, and I feel especially calm and centered after it’s released. TRE was developed by trauma specialist David Bercelli to help alleviate PTSD energy buildup in the body. I also do mindfulness meditation…by focusing on the sensations of my physical breathing, that also helps me a lot to be aware of whats going in in my body and mind in a more peaceful way.

    1. Do you have a web site on TRE? I totally love gardening — pulling weeds is the only form of violence I allow myself these days LOL. It’s so peaceful

  5. Great article Jean… sometimes just knowing the facts helps to solve some of the problems. I had high levels all my life and my body got used to it. Now at 65, I am learning to see my body in different ways and do the things it takes to lose the extra pounds. My knees and belly appreciate it…

  6. Hi Jean!! nice article for someone who doesn’t like to write. 🙂

    Hope you are well and happy!

    hugs, ani rose

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