By Team ICG® Master Trainer Joan Kent

OK, it”™s mean for sure.  But when researchers want to stress mice, they pinch their tails.  The first thing the mice do?  Run to their food bowls and eat.  It”™s a beta-endorphin thing.  Beta-endorphin is released in response to either pleasure or pain/distress and beta-endorphin increases appetite.

Have any of your students ever complained that they gain weight when they”™re stressed?  Did you believe them?  Did you think they were just blaming stress to avoid taking responsibility for indulging in high-calorie foods?

Well, when the stressed and overeating mice are given a choice between ordinary mouse chow and crumbled cookies, which do you think they choose?  Yes, cookies — another beta-endorphin thing.  Released beta-endorphin makes endorphin-triggering foods — like sugar or fat — more appealing.  So, since stressed mice do what we do under the same circumstances, maybe we can sympathize with our students who gain weight under stress.

Of course, with people it”™s more complex.  Those who are highly susceptible to the effects of beta-endorphin may react to stress by eating.  For others, though, short-term stress decreases appetite.  Having to make an important early morning presentation at work could bring on a stress chemical cascade that leads to skipping breakfast.  Once the presentation is done, a different hormone — cortisol — takes over and increases appetite.  Lunch that day might make up for the skipped breakfast, and then some.

In long-term stress, cortisol plays a more prominent role.  Its appetite-stimulating effect lingers.  It decreases serotonin, which can cause anxiety or depression.  Those mood states in turn cause cravings — mostly for carbs and, of course, not for healthful ones.  Low serotonin also reduces satiety (especially for carbs) and increases impulsivity, making it more likely that we”™ll eat the junky carbs we”™re craving.

Long-term high cortisol levels also decrease dopamine and norepinephrine.  When serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine drop, it leads not only to cravings, but to addictions, impulsive and compulsive behaviors, and a preference for carbs and sugars.

Over time, cortisol can decrease beta-endorphin.  Chronically low beta-endorphin increases the risk for addictive or compulsive behaviors, including alcoholism, bulimia, binge eating, and more.

None of this even touches on the metabolic problems caused by cortisol.  Fat deposits in the trunk, the more “metabolically harmful” location.  Too much cortisol can cause glucose disturbances and even insulin resistance.  Insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol (the good stuff), and high or dense LDL (the bad stuff, which is worse when dense).  Insulin resistance also causes plaque formation in the arteries, heart disease, various types of cancer, and more.

Obviously, long-term stress leads to serious consequences in health, metabolism and appetite.  So it might not be the student”™s fault for running to the food bowl and eating the cookies, but, health-wise, it”™s far from ideal.

Fortunately, in addition to meditation, deep breathing, visualization and the like, there are nutrition solutions for stress management.  (You knew they were coming.)

It”™s understandable that a stressed-out student might want a martini or a dish of chocolate ice cream, but succumbing to that urge will probably backfire.  Stress depletes B vitamins, which are critical in the formation of key brain chemicals. Alcohol — the go-to stress-reliever for some — also destroys B vitamins and makes it more difficult to “stabilize” brain chemicals.  Avoiding alcohol may feel tough to do under stress but helps far more than drinking will.

In addition, long-term alcohol or sugar consumption will eventually decrease serotonin and beta-endorphin, resulting in rotten moods and major cravings.  So staying away from sugar will help, too.

Instead, encourage the student to eat protein foods throughout the day to supply the amino acid precursors for serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

Also encourage the student to get B vitamins for good brain function.  Specific B vitamins that we need for neurochemical balance include thiamin, found in whole grains and meats; B6, found in whole grains, eggs, chicken, fish and liver; and folic acid, found in leafy greens and liver.

Naturally, encourage the student to keep taking your cycling classes as often as possible for the stress relief they provide.  Cycling also reduces the likelihood of insulin resistance by making muscles more responsive to insulin, which is always a good thing.  If the calories burned help prevent weight gain, that”™s another plus.

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Joan Kent

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