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Eating and stress

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She eats because she's hurting and food provides a small amount of comfort. He stares at his food - unable to eat - as he tries to figure out why his circumstances have suddenly become so bleak. She tries to eat away her pain. He just wants to sleep.

Why is it difficult to eat normally when life attacks? We don't fully understand how stress causes some to take comfort in food and others to reject it. One factor, according to experts, is how our mind perceives certain events and how our body then responds.

When we eat normally, nutrients enter our bloodstream and send signals to our brain through various nerves and hormones. As our stomach fills with food, stretch receptors tell the brain "we're full down here, better stop eating." When nutrients are used up, other chemical messengers stimulate our appetite to seek food.

We don't always pay attention to these signals, however. Endorphins that send pleasure signals to the brain at the sight, smell or taste of food may trigger some to overeat during times of stress. Others may react to neuropeptide Y - a chemical in the brain that causes a craving for carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and triggers the body to store fat.

Traumatic events cause the release of epinephrine, or adrenaline - the flight or fight hormone that floods the body with quick energy to run away or stand up to bad situations. Those who run on adrenaline during stressful times may lose their appetite and not be able to eat normally.

Whether we eat too much or not enough in response to stress, physical activity is the key. Chemicals released during exercise turn off inappropriate hunger signals and curb the desire eat from boredom, anxiety or depression. Activity can also help stimulate a poor appetite.

In time, as her pain subsides and she is able to return to her usual activity, Polly may find her eating habits return to normal. She may also begin to recognize situations that trigger her to overeat. As she trains her mind to respond differently to the stresses in her life, she may find that she wants to eat less.

Her son, Cal, may find that his appetite returns when he can get out and run.

Of course, Polly is only uncomfortable for a little while, says her vet, until the pain of weaning her 6-month-old colt is past.

Cal, too, will soon wake up and smell the pasture. Even though he can't nurse anymore, he will soon figure out that his mom still loves him as he learns to enjoy grown-up food as much as other horses.

Some pain lasts longer than a season. How we choose to respond to it can have a big effect on our nutritional and physical health.


(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Calif. Readers may send her an e-mail at bquinn(AT)


(c) 2005, The Monterey County Herald (Monterey, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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