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!