Many people across the country have resorted to binge eating to cope with the coronavirus, but relying on unhealthy snacks is detrimental in the long run, according to Lina Begdache, assistant professor of health and wellness at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Begdache says that binge eating is mainly caused by stress, which can alter the chemical in your brain that regulates mood, sleep and appetite. While people can get a temporary feeling of happiness from unhealthy food, it tends to lead to feelings of depression.
“Binge eating during quarantine could be stress-related or just due to boredom,” says Begdache. “Stress alters brain chemistry, namely levels of serotonin. The latter is a neurochemical that regulates mood, sleep and appetite. By depressing serotonin levels, appetite regulation is disrupted and the brain craves food that stimulates serotonin biosynthesis. Although serotonin precursor is tryptophan, an amino acid that comes from protein, its transport to the brain is dependent on insulin, which is elevated after eating carbohydrates. Another important brain chemical lowered by stress is dopamine, which controls motivation, movement, learning and focus. When dopamine levels decrease, individuals lose motivation to eat healthy and exercise. After binge eating, people often feel ‘depressed’ about their bingeing.”
Why we need to eat right
“Mechanistically, eating food high in simple carbohydrates such as sweets, temporarily elevates serotonin due to a fast increase in blood insulin. However, serotonin eventually crashes due to the sudden drop in insulin after a while, leading to a depressed mood. Unhealthy foods tend to be high in fat and are also devoid of several vitamins and minerals that support brain function and neurochemistry. Fat is a palatable nutrient, which means it activates receptors on the taste buds and stimulates the release of dopamine, the ‘motivation chemical’. Dopamine activates the ‘pleasure centers’ in the brain which learns that eating these types of food ‘brings pleasure’ and improves mood. However, the catch is that with binge-eating, people are getting both the simple carbs and fat in unhealthy foods. The drop in insulin following the sharp rise after eating simple carbs will lead to an eventual drop in blood sugar, which will activate the stress response, as the body is seeking more carbohydrates to replenish blood sugar. This stress response causes dopamine to turn into the stress-hormones catecholamines, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which promote stress-related eating. Consequently, to feel better people resort to eating the ‘comfort food’ again and a vicious cycle of binge eating and low mood develops.
“Ultimately, eating healthy provides your brain with the essential nutrients needed for optimal function. Eating healthy means individuals are consuming complex carbohydrates and fiber, which control blood sugar and, hence, insulin levels. By keeping a steady blood insulin, not only do you control your stress response but you also preserve the key brain chemicals that support a positive mood.”