With the holiday season quickly approaching, many of us will be attending gatherings, parties and feasts over the coming month. With these comes a barrage of tempting treats, drinks, and rich foods that send our taste buds and waistlines soaring. We often throw caution to the wind over the next month and really overdo it when it comes to the consumption of food and drinks. Hence the New Year’s resolution in January!
This year, why not take a different approach to the holiday season and look for something to help keep those holiday cravings in check. While there are many factors that contribute to issues concerning cravings (mood, sleep, blood sugar, PMS, social settings, etc.), the one I want to focus on is the issue of stress management and the hormone cortisol.
The stress hormone cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands at the tissue level of the part of the adrenals called the cortex. During times of acute or short term stress, cortisol is an important regulator of energy, blood sugar, blood pressure, immune function and inflammation. Unfortunately under chronic stress, cortisol turns problematic and can play a role in high blood pressure, high blood sugar, depression, insomnia and weight gain – just to name a few. Particularly with respect to food cravings and weight, the higher the cortisol level, the greater the appetite, cravings for sugar and associated weight gain (1). Hence when stress is high, we crave more and tend to overeat and over drink as a quick fix coping strategy. When we do this, we can actually elevate our levels of serotonin in the brain and feel good for a short period of time. Then we crash, feel lousy and subsequently crave again. The cycle goes on and on.
So, what can be done with stress levels over the holidays that may cause you to celebrate a little bit more than you should? May I suggest an adaptogen – in particular Rhodiola. Adaptogens are a class of herbs associated with helping the body to cope in response to stressors. Rhodiola is a member of this adaptogen class of plants, which has demonstrated its benefits in managing stress, enhancing immunity, improving cognition (better choices!), as well as minimizing issues with depression and anxiety.
A placebo controlled study in China (2009) revealed the protective effects of Rhodiola on stress induced cortisol levels in healthy individuals. Subjects who received Rhodiola showed no change in their cortisol levels while those in the placebo group had their levels rise sharply with exposure to chronic stress (2). Additional studies have demonstrated that Rhodiola achieves its cortisol-lowering and stress-fighting abilities through neuroendocrine connections that reduce cortisol production and enhance stress resistance proteins (3). Rhodiola boosts the levels of these “stress-sensor” proteins, which in turn lower the production and impact of cortisol in the body, enhancing mental and physical performance as well as longevity (4). With relation to the serotonin connection relating to food, mood and stress, Rhodiola has been shown to help with the transport of serotonin precursors across the blood brain barrier as well as blocking serotonin degrading enzymes. Thus, healthy levels of serotonin are sustained in your brain so you don’t have to “soothe your mood with food”.
In conclusion, there are many factors that will cause us to crave over the holidays. The underlying reason we satisfy those cravings is because it makes us feel good in that moment. When we manage our stress well, using an adaptogen like Rhodiola, we are already feeling good. The stress hormone cortisol is in balance and the feelings of craving those holiday treats are dramatically reduced. When we do indulge, it will just be in moderation, keeping our health in check and minimizing our need for a drastic New Year’s resolution.
- Epel, E., R. Lapidus, B. McEwen, et al. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior.Psychoneuroendocrinology 26: 37-49, 2001.
- Zhang ZJ, Tong Y, Zou J, Chen PJ, Yu DH. Dietary supplement with a combination of Rhodiola crenulata and Ginkgo biloba enhances the endurance performance in healthy volunteers. Chin J Integr Med. 2009 Jun;15(3):177-83.
- Panossian A, Wikman G, Sarris J. Rosenroot (Rhodiola rosea): traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology and clinical efficacy. Phytomedicine. 2010 Jun;17(7):481-93.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Sep;4(3):198-219.