Emotional Eating

Updated: Jan 25, 2019

author Bethany Brenes MPA, LPTA

Food is the centerpiece in our celebrations, we use it to reward, show affection, and congregate together. But when food is used to combat negative emotions, it can become perilous to our wellbeing. When we feel stressed, sad, depressed, or lonely we tend to seek out sugary food. There is an actual scientific reason behind our drive to sweets to feel happiness in an emotional event. The consumption of sugar releases dopamine and endorphins, which create a wave of calm and happiness. Thus, the reason we stress eat or go for the ice cream after a break up. We often don’t know how to physically change the negative emotions, so we console ourselves using food. However, after the stressful event is over and we no longer are seeking sweet food to release a feeling of wellbeing, we find ourselves in a habit we cannot break. The intake of excessive sugar changes the way our brain and body were previously operating, creating a reliance on that food. Dr. Kenneth Blum states in “Reward Deficiency Syndrome” that anything that causes our biochemistry to become balanced out will become an addiction. Knowing the alterations that take place when we emotionally eat can help us move to choose healthier routes to break or prevent the addiction.

How does sugar affect our body chemistry?

When sugar enters our system, our brain reacts with a release of dopamine and endorphins. But we only experience the calming and satisfying effect it relays in our body. So, what happens with the release of these two neurotransmitters in the brain and how does it create a rewiring effect when we consume sugar in excess?

Dopamine Dependence

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for enforcing behavior, originally intended for survival measures. When dopamine is released, a rush of pleasure is experienced. Therefore, we eat the sugar, we feel what we label as happiness and our body connects the two. Sugar = happiness. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that the pleasure experienced with elevated dopamine levels creates motivation for us to proactively perform these actions. Cocaine and heroine also rely on these neurotransmitters in their mapping of addiction.

Endorphin Resistance

Endorphins, another neurotransmitter, is released to help us deal with physical and emotional pain. It can also be trigged when we exercise, eat spicy food, or consume sugar, causing a release of endorphins along pathways of the central nervous system, in turn creating a numb and calm feeling. By eating excessive sugar regularly, we develop a resistance to these endorphins. The overloading of sugar on our bodies creates an opiate like effect. Unfortunately, we have increased our endorphins to levels to a heightened state that our body craves to maintain. With this afteration our cells no longer receive the signal from our body that we are reaching the level it needs to create the calming effect, causing us to feel we are low on endorphins. Even though our bodies are not lacking endorphins, because of our increased consumption, we have created a heightened tolerance and require more sugar to satisfy our emotional craving.

Sugars ability to rewire our brain is also seen in areas of our body. Sugar can be the strongest offense to our negative emotions. When we are feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed we tend to reach for comfort food containing high levels of sugar. The food appears to help our mood with the release of dopamine to feel calm and happy and endorphins to dull the sensation of pain. Once we self-medicate with sugar for a prolonged period, we may no longer feel the emotional triggers to reach for the comfort food, but we have rewired our body chemistry to demand more.

How do emotions affect our body chemistry?

Leptin levels drop

Leptin is a hormone that stores and releases fat in the body and signals the full response. Stress is found to decrease leptin levels causing our bodies to store fat and delay the satiation signal allowing us to continue eating. With our excessive sugar consumption, we are creating increased endorphins and low leptin. These levels make us feel we need more sugar and promote the storage the fat. Endorphins usually work along with stress to release stored fat into the body for energy. However, with a resistance to endorphins, our fat cells don’t receive the message and continue to store rather than release the fat. Scientifically explaining why overweight people feel that cannot lose weight. This rewire causes the body to feel it needs more sugar and actively works to store the extra fat intake.

Pre-Frontal Cortex functioning alters

The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is responsible for problem solving and processing thought. Depression or negative emotional states can alter normal functioning of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. These alterations can change the value which we perceive food and our control of cravings. Our emotions are the process by which we appraise our self. Typically, people with depression think of themselves more negatively and spend more time concentrating on themselves. They tend to have trouble switching between thinking of themselves and the world around them. Christopher G Davey, the corresponding research author for the University of Melbourne, reported a study that found patients with depression showed a pre-frontal cortex with greater control over other parts of the brain involved with self-appraisal.

Cycle on Repeat

A higher concentration on our negative emotional states creates a need for calming effects and endorphins to relieve the emotional pain, enter sugar. The consumption of sugar will give a sense of calm and temporarily dull the pain, but as we continue self-medicating we will require more and more sugar to produce the same effects. Through this conditioning we have more than likely contributed to a significant weight gain. Weight gain often couples with body dissatisfaction, stress, depression, lowering leptin levels, and desensitizing our full meter. The inclining state of depression alters the functioning of our pre-frontal cortex increaing focus on our emotional state and body dissatisfaction, which causes us again to crave the dopamine and endorphins.

Depression - Overeating- Weight Gain - Body Dissatisfaction - Depression - repeat

Overeating is a symptom of depression. When we turn to food for physical or emotional consolation we set ourselves up for a destructive cycle that becomes hard to break. We can find ways to change our size, but until we deal with our emotional state we cannot achieve a healthy wellbeing. Knowing the affect sugar and negative emotional states have on our bodies are the first step in understanding and mending the cycle.

Frustration breeds in the undiagnosed

Have you felt your anxiety levels rise when you are suffering with symptoms of an illness, but upon going to the doctor and receiving a diagnosis you feel more in control even those the symptoms are still present? It’s the knowledge of what is happening in your body that gives you a reason for the symptoms. Nothing else has changed, but now you are aware of what you cannot see and can make a plan toward prognosis. You are not now going to magically be able to resist your reach toward ice cream when you’ve had a rough day but knowing what part the sugar is playing establishes awareness. Awareness will continue to evolve as your body educates you in how it is affected by what you are eating and what you are feeling, taking control back from your emotions.