Stress and Sugar: A Mind-Body-Diet Connection



by Amy Berger

We’ve all been there:  we didn’t sleep well, the coffeemaker broke, and we got stuck in a traffic jam. By the time we get to work, we’re tired, angry, and late for the morning meeting. In other words, we’re stressed out! Is it any wonder the donuts call our names across the conference room table? The chocolate glaze, the sweet, soft dough. Let’s face it–those things don’t just call our names, they grab us in a chokehold and hit us over the head with a hammer! And it would take every tool at Home Depot for us to stand a fighting chance.

Why are sweet, starchy comfort foods the first things we crave when we’re stressed, and why are they so difficult to resist? Is there something unique about sweets that makes them the drug of choice when we’re stressed? Something that isn’t in, say, chicken, or almonds? You bet there is.

Throughout this series, I’ve been stressing that cravings for sweets and starches aren’t solely in our heads. There are physiological reasons why we want these foods so badly when we’re tired or worked up over something.

In the post about insulin, I explained that it’s the master hormone at the controls of the blood sugar rollercoaster. But it isn’t the only one. Hormones are messengers; they tell our bodies to do certain things. Is there a hormone that tells us to eat sugar when we’re stressed? Absolutely. It’s called cortisol.

Just like the blood sugar rollercoaster wouldn’t have any riders without someone selling tickets out front, insulin wouldn’t have much of a job to do without someone sending sugar its way. Cortisol is that someone, but, like insulin, cortisol is a double-edged sword.

You’ve probably heard of cortisol as “the stress hormone.” What does it do, and why does it come out to play (or, rather, wreak havoc) when we’re stressed out? To explain this, we have to take a step back and think about things in evolutionary terms. Our bodies are exquisitely equipped to handle stress, but a very specific kind of stress. Thousands of years ago, stress was extreme, but short-lived: we had to run away from a lion; we had to climb a tree in a hurry to keep from becoming a tiger’s dinner. In situations like that, cortisol is man’s best friend. It enables us to be fast and strong, and heightens our senses to everything except things that might get in our way. It raises our heart rate and dilates our blood vessels so we can get blood pumping through more quickly, it dilates our pupils so we can take in more of our surroundings and look for safety, and it dulls our perception of pain–after all, if you step on a rock and stop to deal with the pain, the tiger’s gonna eat you! But the most important thing cortisol does is give us fuel in a flash. And which fuel does it give us? One guess.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. When was the last time you ran from lions and tigers? Been a while, huh? Maybe not as long as you think. To our bodies, hard-wired for survival among wild animals, everyday things that aggravate us are perceived as “stress.” Deadlines at work, insufficient sleep, tension at home, traffic jams, irritating coworkers, noisy dogs in the neighbor’s yard–the body interprets it all as stress. And in response, it releases cortisol, which in turn releases sugar into the bloodstream. And if you really were running from a lion, you would want all the sugar you could get! You’d need to move! The problem is, when you’re sitting behind the wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic or dealing with your irritating boss, there’s nowhere to go. You’ve got all this sugar coursing through your bloodstream, but you’re not running from anything. You’re trapped in your car or in your office. But this sugar’s got to go somewhere, because too much sugar in the blood is not good. So what happens? Cortisol lets sugar into the carnival, and now our old friend insulin can escort it straight to the rollercoaster.

Cortisol is the kind of hormone scientists call a glucocorticoid. If you think that sounds like “glucose,” you’re right. In those dangerous, stressful situations from our evolutionary past, we needed lots of glucose and we needed it quickly. Cortisol’s job is to get it for us any way it can–even if that means breaking down our own muscles to get some. (When the body’s desperate for glucose, it can make it out of protein.) Whammy of double whammies, this is why we tend to gain body fat when we’re chronically stressed:  we’re eating more high-carbohydrate foods and we’ve lost some muscle mass–and muscles are what consume fuel, even when we’re just lying around doing nothing.

The crazy thing about cortisol is that it can set you up on the blood sugar rollercoaster even if you haven’t eaten any sugar. High cortisol can be the undoing of the very best low-carb diet. If you’ve been diligent about limiting your sugar and carb intake but aren’t losing any weight or you’ve hit a plateau, it’d be a good idea to examine how stressed you usually feel. Chronic everyday stressors–the annoying coworker, the mad dash to the train–add up, and they do as much to wreck blood sugar control as a sticky bun. So even if you’ve been following a lower-carb diet for a while, it’s important to keep your stress levels in check.

We hear it all the time: stress makes us gain weight. The thing is, there’s nothing inherent about stress itself that makes us eat more. It’s cortisol rising in response to that stress that basically takes us by the hand and walks us straight to the dessert tray. You notice I didn’t say it puts a gun to our head and forces sweets down our throat. Because it doesn’t. When your blood sugar’s low because of the effects of cortisol on insulin, high-carb comfort foods are hard to resist. Very hard. But not impossible. At times like that, ask yourself if you’re actually hungry. Chances are, you’re not. Your hormones are tricking you into feeling hungry. You’ll probably find you don’t want just any food; you want something sweet. If you were truly hungry, a pork chop and mixed vegetables would sound good. But you have no interest in that. Cookies, on the other hand, are all you can think about.

You know my line by now: knowledge is power. It’s still difficult to avoid sweets when our bodies are screaming for them. But maybe the “what” of steering clear will be just a little easier now that you know the why of wanting them so badly.


Amy Berger is earning a master’s degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport. A proud U.S. Air Force veteran, Amy struggled for years doing “all the right things,” but failed to see any improvement in her health and physique. Through shifting to nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods and intelligent exercise, she has transformed her body and self-esteem, and plans to share the lessons learned with those still fighting the battle. She believes weight loss is not a moral issue; it’s not about willpower, but restoring balance to our bodies and minds so that we don’t just survive, but thrive. Amy is especially interested in helping young women heal their relationships with food and serving as a source of common sense and sanity in the sea of nutritional madness. She can be reached at


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