by Stephanie Scott
Stressful situations cause the production of cortisol, a stress hormone. This hormone causes an increased heart rate, diversion of blood flow to muscles, and metabolic changes, which allows energy to be made ready for use by the muscles. All of these responses aim to aid in survival in stressful, and possibly life-threatening, situations. This mechanism works through a negative feedback system, so the stress response is able to quickly shut itself off and allow the body to function normally again.
Generally, this is not the type of stress that college students deal with in their lives. With ever-increasing demands from classes, the responsibility of being on one’s own, possible financial responsibilities, lack of sleep, substance abuse (or decisions about whether to take part in such activity), and trying to figure out how to balance everything, stress levels are often elevated in college students. If students do not learn to manage their busy lives, it can lead to chronic stress.
Chronic stress affects the body using the same mechanism as a regular stress response. However, chronic stress causes the body to produce cortisol in a routine manner to allow the body to physiologically respond to the stressful situations it is placed in, and these stress responses do not shut themselves off using a negative feedback system. When a response that requires much energy does not shut off, it quickly depletes the body’s energy supply. This can lead to food cravings– especially cravings for high-energy foods containing much sugar and fat. These foods are favorable because they tend to be deposited as fat in the abdomen, and abdominal fat is easily accessible by the liver to be used for energy. Also, these abdominal fat deposits send out metabolic signals that turn off the stress response in the body. Therefore, eating high-energy foods is important when dealing with chronic stress because it allows the body to gain energy deposits so the body can function once previously stored fat deposits have been depleted by energy-consuming stress responses.
When college students are dealing with chronic stress, it is easy to see how weight gain could be promoted. Though it is important to get the high-energy foods to allow the body to deal with stress, these foods can also lead to significant weight gain. When stress is also paired with other new things in college, such as an abundance of unhealthy foods and unhealthy substance abuse, weight gain is not unlikely. While stress may not be the only reason for weight gain, learning to deal with and reduce stress is extremely important. It is not healthy to deal with stress only through eating. Students must also learn to handle their stress in other ways, such as exercise, meditation, dealing with situations before they become troublesome, or just generally finding a better balance in their lives. If people do not learn to gain more control over their lives and do not learn to deal with and reduce stress, they may carry these habits out of college, and this strongly contributes to the obesity epidemic affecting our country.
Estroff Marano, H. (2003, November 21). Stress and Eating. Psychology Today, Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200311/stress-and-eating
National Health Ministries. (2004). Stress & The College Student. Retrieved from http://www.uic.edu/depts/wellctr/docs/Stress%20and%20the%20College%20Student.pdf