11/13/2012 07:57 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Mind Over Matter: Effects of Stress on Metabolism

Stress abounds in our modern lives, and for the most part, we manage it as best we can. Though we may think that we're coping just fine, the reality may be that stress is contributing to the trend of national weight gain.

Studies have shown that hormones play a role in elevating the desire to eat foods containing carbohydrates during prolonged periods of stress. When our brains receive stimuli that indicate a period of stress on the body, they respond by releasing cortisol, a hormone whose primary function is to raise blood sugar and promote the metabolism of carbohydrates, protein and fat. In response to higher blood sugar levels, the pancreas releases extra insulin, which has the effect of lowering blood sugar rather quickly. This, in turn, causes a craving for foods rich in carbohydrates - e.g., comfort foods. This could be directly tied to why so many are donning the "Sandy 15" in the wake of the super-storm and subsequent nor'easter that have pounded the East Coast in recent weeks.

Although thousands of people are still without power, and my thoughts and best wishes go out to them, the majority of East Coasters are desperately attempting to put the comfort food away and get back to a sense of normalcy and their regular diet and exercise routines. However, this may be harder than it sounds, as people's emotions are still out of sorts and, as stated above, the simple carbohydrates found in most comfort foods can actually make us feel better.

Don't panic -- there is a solution, and it starts with your brain, not your stomach!

Fortunately, there's a lot of research showing that cognitive behavior therapies can help people consciously change the way they think to such an extent that they not only can produce new behaviors, but even biological changes in their bodies.

If our brains perceive something as difficult, we respond in a particular way, both consciously and subconsciously. Ask any firefighter, athlete or soldier, and they'll affirm that if the brain tells us that the challenge is worthwhile and is possible, that positive mindset is far more likely to produce a winning attitude and a positive result.

By making choices to change our conscious thoughts, we can change our subconscious inclinations.

Here are some healthy suggestions that can get you back on track and fill the void you may have been fueling with comfort foods:

  • Foods like strawberries provide the carb boost your body requires during times of stress, and are also high in antioxidants. They are also a delicious and natural treat, and when combined with protein-rich cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, you've got yourself a healthy snack that will keep your blood sugar stable.
  • Foods like salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help improve your mood and help boost energy levels. Salmon is also an excellent source of lean protein, which helps regulate blood sugar levels, and keep you from reaching for unhealthy snacks between meals.
  • Eating a well-balanced diet with a proper combination of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats is essential in creating a sense of normalcy, stability and contentment.
  • Restoring a healthy mindset is important, as well and practicing techniques like yoga. Even just exercising on a daily basis can prevent your mind from desiring unhealthy foods, and literally cause your stomach to crave healthier options.

These techniques and others can be found on my website. I would love to hear how you avoid stress eating or how you're getting back on track after weathering the storm.

For more by Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.