Looking Back for Answers on Stress Eating

May 14, 2008 | Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

Send to a friend

* Required fields

  or  Cancel

 Looking Back for Answers on Stress Eating
A great deal of eating behavior is buried in subconscious brain circuitry that was developed in your early life. Such programming is more like computer hardware than software, which is why many of us struggle to “change the eating programs.” This includes programming in the womb, the first few weeks of life, infant experiences, and childhood.

Food acquisition is wired to survival – and pleasure. Threats to survival are called stress – and feel unstable or painful to a greater or lesser degree. New research is showing that food acquisition signals (ghrelin from your stomach, Neuropeptide Y in your brain) are kept in harmony during nursing of the newborn by oxytocin1 (a “feel good” bonding hormone).

Experiments show that when this bond is broken2 (separation of mother from child) then ghrelin and NPY go into a stress state, altering the formation of food acquisition programming. Because ghrelin and NPY are both intimately involved with the stress response this means individuals who were not breastfed3, individuals with early life bonding issues (especially to mom), if there was a lack of food in early life, or individuals with an unstable or painful early life, are much more likely to eat in response to stress.

I have always been fascinated by the person who eats when they are bored and not seemingly for any particular stress or reason. Such people report a pleasure feeling from the food, almost as if the act of eating the food creates some sense of bonding they are lacking in their life. I found by questioning these “bored eaters” that they invariably had early life instability of magnitude.

The important point is to recognize that a lot of your urges to eat may be coming from “old tapes” programmed in at an early age. I'm not one for rummaging around in the past, but awareness of this issue is sometimes all it takes to be more in charge over what enters your mouth. If this is a weakness for you work on establishing more or better relationships in the present so that your subconscious “bonding gas tank” is all filled up, at which point the desire to use food as a substitute will be lessened.

Referenced Studies

  1. ^ Oxytocin Modulates Appetite   J Neural Transm.  Oxytocin inhibits the stimulatory effect of ghrelin on circulating neuropeptide Y levels in humans.Coiro V, Saccani-Jotti G, Rubino P, Manfredi G, Vacca P, Volta E, Chiodera P.
  2. ^ Bonding is Important in Early Life for Normal Appetite  J Endocrinol.   Schmidt MV, Liebl C, Sterlemann V, Ganea K, Hartmann J, Harbich D, Alam S, Müller MB.
  3. ^ Breastfeeding Protects Against Obesity  Clin Nutr.  Savino F, Liguori SA.

Search thousands of health news articles!