(Dis)Comfort Foods 1

I don’t think it’s front page news that what we eat and drink has great impact upon the onset and intensity of panic and anxiety. And one of the most prolific examples is the ingestion of food and drink loaded with simple sugars, a.k.a. simple carbohydrates.

Now, one might think staying away from potential trouble would be an easy decision to make; however, as we all know, it all too often isn’t. And here’s why.

Let’s first review a bit of physiology. Something known as the HPA Axis is the integrated functioning of the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. In concert, they manage our reactions to stress and regulate body functions such as mood, digestion, immunity, sexuality, and energy usage.

Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), produced and secreted by the hypothalamus, stimulates the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) by the pituitary gland. The pituitary, in turn, sends a message to the adrenal glands to secrete hormones known as glucocorticoids, most notably cortisol. And it’s cortisol, the “stress hormone,” that launches a very animated blood sugar and blood pressure popping response to stress.

This response ultimately leads to norepinephrine (noradrenaline) flipping the switch on our fight/flight response.

I believe it makes perfect sense that what we just reviewed would ramp-up the participation in compulsive and pleasurable activities. And within the context of this post, we’re talking about the ingestion of simple sugars, as well as fats. Indeed, “comfort foods.”

Now, cortisol stimulates abdominal fat storage. This particular type of fat build-up actually generates a signal to inhibit the presence of what are known as the catecholamines; most notably norepinephrine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine, as well as CRH. And this holds the potential to make us more physically, mentally, and emotionally at ease. Ah, the beauty of overindulging in comfort foods.

The bottom-line is, consciously or not, people consume comfort foods in an effort to calm stress, hoping for an elevation in mood and a reduction in anxiety. And, no doubt, eating these foods can flat-out cheer one up, making them function and feel one heck of a lot better. But, again, there’s a price to pay in the currency of abdominal obesity. I guess we knew that, didn’t we.

And as unfortunate as it may be, this particular type of obesity is strongly associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and death (ouch).

Now, if you think about it, if one lived in a culture where ongoing access to comfort foods was low, you could make the case for the benefits of occasional munching in an effort to reduce anxiety and stress, and elevate mood. However, access to comfort foods isn’t an issue in the good old U.S.ofA. So, habitually attempting to relieve stress, anxiety, and the blues by pounding comfort foods may certainly make us feel better, but it just isn’t congruent with a long and happy life.

Be sure to stop by for (Dis)Comfort Foods 2. We’ll begin with talking about carbohydrate cravings a.k.a. sugar cravings.