It’s comfort food season.

But have you ever stopped to think about why comfort food feels comforting?

There is an insanely intricate web of relationships between food choice, appetite and mood. And at the heart of this web are the neurotransmitters.

Put those cute glasses on, folks…we’re about to go full geek chic on this blog post.

Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that transmit messages in your nervous system. One of the most famous is serotonin, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. Serotonin levels are associated with contentedness and happiness. If you have depression, you typically have lower levels of serotonin and may be taking a medication called an SSRI, which works by altering the uptake of serotonin by nerve cells (neurons) so more of it stays active.

Amazingly, 90% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut.

And some researchers believe that signals originating in the gut may be influencing your mood. In fact, the bacteria in your gut are thought to influence the levels of serotonin produced in your body. Crazy critters. But that’s a whole other post.

Now, meet dopamine. Dopamine is all about motivation, attention and pleasure. It fits into a nifty little pathway called the dopamine reward pathway. It is, you guessed it, a neural pathway that connects action to reward and produces motivation for further action. And it can be stimulated by what you eat.

If you eat a really high calorie, high fat, high carb food, it is inherently pleasurable and dopamine is released in response. When you get a rush of dopamine, it stimulates (excites) the neurons. Which is fine, unless you do this a lot, and those neurons start to get weary in all the excitement and start to downgrade their responsiveness so you need more dopamine to get the same sensation. This, in part, can lead to addiction to the reward.

Stress, comfort and a pint

When you’re stressed out, the nervous system and a pathway known as the hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal (HPA) axis, produce cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that dominates in chronic stress (read: modern life).

While some of us undereat when stressed, most of us tend to overeat. And I’m not talking carrots. We typically eat more of what researchers call ‘highly palatable’ foods: AKA the high fat, high sugar junk that lights up the dopamine reward pathway.

Why is this? A few reasons. The first, is that highly palatable food is strongly rewarding. Eating this kind of food produces both a temporary increase in serotonin level along with a rush of dopamine. The insulin spike triggered by a high sugar food may also signal reward  all on its own. The second, is that our bodies are smart and driven to learn (and that dopamine helps provide the motivation!).

If you feel down, and experience a rush of wellbeing as you’re eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or having a pint of craft brew…the next time you feel down, your body will remember this. You’ll exhibit motivation to do the same thing and over time, you can become habituated to it. In essence, you’ve learned to self medicate. But it’s a messy fix.

How did I just eat all of those cookies? They weren’t even that good.

When you feel a negative situation, the body may be driven to avoid it – and it learns that eating comfort food is a way of doing this, just like drinking alcohol. The more stressed we are, the more we are driven by habit instead of active, conscious behaviours that are in line with our goals. For example, if we have learned to self-medicate with food in stress, the more stressed we are, the more likely we will adhere to the habit, even if consciously, we have resolved to make different choices like going for a run.

Continuous activation of the dopamine reward pathway, in addition to blunting the pleasure high you get over time, is thought to drive down serotonin levels. Interestingly, cortisol also down-regulates serotonin receptors, making serotonin less effective and disinhibits dopamine, meaning it can run more of the show. So you feel less happy, less content in general and interestingly enough, less full when you eat – because serotonin also leads to a sense of fullness after a meal. And if you’re everyday diet starts to look more like a comfort food fest than a salad bar, the inflammation that accompanies poor diet and stress can actually further augment your serotonin levels.

If this all seems unbeatable, how do you even begin to fix it?

Make no mistake, this shit takes deep work. For example, if there are life circumstances that are causing deep stress, you need to take steps to work on those or you may be fighting an uphill battle with comfort eating. I can’t recommend working with a therapist enough if stress goes from everyday life to deep unhappiness or trauma.

Start engaging in healthy, pro-serotonin activities. Like spending real (not virtual) time with friends and family. Exercise (one of the best therapies we have for mild depression). Acts of services and community engagement like volunteering.

Identify what non-food strategies makes you feel safe, supported and comforted. You’ll need to find healthy ways to deal with stress, like taking a bath, getting outside in the garden, house cleaning with the music at full blast (um, yes, I find that de-stressing!) or calling a friend and venting.

I love meditation for learning how to sit with that discomfort and transform your relationship with emotions. If you are in Vancouver, my friends at House of Moment run a great, welcoming space for learning to meditate.

I recommend that you engage in these positive activities without connecting them to stress eating at first.

For example, if you tell yourself that you have to stop stress eating today and instead, you’ll go for a run, well…every time you don’t do that, you’ll feel even worse. Instead, commit to a ‘learn to run’ program with a friend independent of your comfort food habits for now.

Raise that serotonin and perhaps it will help ease the stress that drives comfort eating, in addition to your other positive habits.

I am a big believer in focusing on additive changes, instead of taking things away because the discomfort associated with deprivation can stress you out further and make it even harder to resist the less healthful habit.

Every time you make a positive choice, you get one step closer to making it a habit.

So over time, you’ll strengthen your connection to the positive habit in times of stress and it will begin to drown out old habits. You can start to make healthy swaps for comfort foods, like banana nice cream instead of ice cream. Kale chips instead of chips. And eventually, it will become easier to release food as a balm for unhappiness.

In case you wonder if I am speaking of this solely from a professional perspective, that’s not the case. I was in fact a big stress eater in my teens and 20s. I’ll share more of that story later…but what I want you to know is that you can get to the place where you are stressed out and feeling awful and not run into the arms of a bag of chips. I did. And you can too.

And if you are looking for support in transforming your eating habits, my associate Jess Pirnak has exceptional experience in the psychology of eating habits and coaching people to make change. You can see our nutrition counselling packages here.

So there it is. A little look at the biology of comfort eating…and how you can begin to transform it. This article is my humble attempt to vastly oversimplify the science of overeating and comfort food behaviours based on what I currently understand. Because it’s super fascinating!! And knowledge is power, so if you identify with a struggle around comfort eating, I want you to have some knowledge so you can reframe your behaviours and treat yourself a little more gently. Because you deserve it.

PS…There is still so much that scientists are still starting to unravel! If you have insight around this topic, or new research to share that might place this info in another light, please do let me know!!

Photo by Haley Powers on Unsplash