We all do it.  It was a rough day at work.  You got stuck in traffic. You and your significant other are not getting along.  Your kids are acting up. You feel like escaping to a private island to escape the stress that you can't seem to get away from.  Instead though you reach for the nearest pint of ice cream and "eat your troubles away."  Unfortunately this feeling of satisfaction is only temporary, and in the long term this way of dealing with stress can lead to weight gain, which in turn causes us to feel more frustrated, depressed, and stressed.  So why does it feel good to eat "bad"?

Carbohydrates aid in the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known as the "feel good" hormone.  It has been found to increase mood and produce a feeling of calm and confidence in us...temporarily.  This doesn't mean that you have to eat ice cream and candy regularly to feel good though.

Individuals also commonly tell me that they "need" their glass of wine or their beer to relax them at the end of the day or they "need" to go out drinking on the weekends to relax from a long work week.  I even once had a client ask me which liquor shots were lower in calories because she wanted to "stay healthy when [she] went out drinking with her friends."  My initial thought response to this was "Really? A "healthy" way to drink alcohol?" 

Alcohol calms us because it supresses our central nervous system, therefore initially making us feel relaxed and calm, but eventually this calm leads to lack of control over thoughts, emotions, judgment, as well as speech and motor issues.  Long-term use of alcohol to calm us down, even if only in small amounts each day (more than one standard drink per day for women or more than two standard drinks per day for men) or on the weekends, can increase our risk of developing many health issues such as hypertension, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, certain cancers, as well as digestive issues. 

Alcohol can also affect weight loss. Alcohol is considered a toxin by the liver. Our liver is not only responsible for filtering toxins from our body, but also for doing such things as digesting fats from our food.  However, alcohol is given priority over the digestion of fat by the liver since it is a waste product that our liver wants to get out of our body. Therefore, if you drink alcohol regularly, your liver will be taking so much time digesting the alcohol to get it out of your system, that it will not have as much time to digest the fats you have ingested throughout the day.  Does this mean it's OK to drink alcohol if you eat low-fat foods?  NO.  No matter what way you look at it, alcohol is only beneficial to  health by lowering blood pressure slightly when consumed in moderation.  Anything in excess is going to place unnecessary pressure on our bodies and will put our health in harm's way.

So, how do we relax without these common vices?  There are many things we can consume and many things we can do to help us relax:

*Eat healthy carbohydrates to get the benefit of serotonin: Healthy sources of carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy, when balanced with a low-fat source of protein can help release serotonin too.  A balanced diet of these healthy carbohydrate sources can help us feel more energy, confidence, and can help stabilize our blood sugar levels, which can in turn, stabilize our appetite.

*Drink a cup of green tea: The antioxidants called catechins in green tea have been found to have the ability to suppress excitatory states in our central nervous system, thus helping with central nervous system healing.  This can produce a calming effect and reduce anxiety.

*Take a walk or exercise:  Exercise aids in the release of "feel-good" endorphins in our body which can cause a feeling of euphoria and help in increasing energy levels and improving mood.  In addition, exercise can help improve sleep, and with better sleep patterns, comes a stronger ability to deal with the stresses of our day.

*Spend time with those we care about: Serotonin can also be released when we are with those we care about, especially when we receive affection such as hugs.  Spend time with those you care about to talk about what is bothering you, and it just might be the remedy you need to feel good inside so you can gain the motivation to take care of your health!

***If you have been feeling down for a long period of time, 3 months or more, and have experienced fatigue, headaches, body aches, irritability, insomnia, "empty" feelings, overeating, or appetite loss, you may be depressed.  If you think you may be depressed, please contact your local healthcare provider for ways to deal with your depression in addition to the healthy solutions above.

References:
  • Mayo Clinic
  •  National Institute of Mental Health
  • Mental Health America
  • "Surgical Neurology International"
  • "Obesity Research"