12/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are You A High Reactor or a Low Reactor?

Ever wonder why some of us use food to deal with stress and others don't? According to the work of Dr. Elissa Epel at the University of San Francisco's Center for Obesity Assessment and Treatment, we don't all react to stress in the same way.

When we are stressed we release a substance called cortisol. If you are driving and the car in front of you stops short, you get a shot of cortisol that prepares you for "fight or flight". It allows you to react quickly and speeds everything up. This is a good thing with acute stress. Dr. Epel did most of her work studying chronic stress. This is the type of stress most of us are under, especially right now with the economy, swine flu, wars, floods, drought, global warming, health care reform and David Letterman's sex life. That doesn't even include our own personal stress of raising kids, caring for elders, paying bills, etc...

When we are under stress, we don't all release the same amount of cortisol. Some of us release more than others. Excess cortisol can contribute to obesity in that it tends to contribute to abdominal fat accumulation and binging. Too much cortisol makes us feel anxious and it is natural to want to attenuate this feeling. Eating certain foods lowers cortisol and makes us feel better. The high fat, high sugar and/or high salt foods do this where fruits and vegetables, not so much.

We don't yet know what makes some people react more than others to stress. If you look around in your life, you can probably identify who is who. I met a woman once who, when she got stressed out, which wasn't often, would just go read. That's all she needed to do and she would feel better. I wish I was like that. I am not. I am pretty sure I am in the higher range of cortisol release.

So, if you are a high reactor and you need to lower your cortisol, what can you do, other than binge, to make yourself feel better? There are some better alternatives and it is good to practice them often. I like exercise. It burns calories, lowers cortisol and produces endorphins. You can also dance, listen to music, have sex, meditate, call a friend, watch mindless TV, go shopping (although this one can become a problem), pray, write and zone out with the computer.

If you think you are a high reactor, and have good ways to deal with stress, please share them with us. I find it helpful to know that there is a difference in us and we shouldn't feel shame for being more stressed out than our friends. This is a biochemical reaction that is most likely genetic.

If you'd like to contact Irene, and/or participate in the research for her new book on the process of weight loss, you can find her here.