It’s been a long day. You’re stressed and tired. You’ve got nothing left and you just want a reward. To give yourself a treat, you reach for a soda, a cookie, or that bag of chips—or, maybe, all of the above in succession. There’s a bio-chemical reason you do this, yet unfortunately, that momentary pleasure is only going to increase your craving, while doing little to dampen your stress—and you’ll gain weight, which may add to your stress. In this article, we’ll explore three ways to curb the cycle of stress-induced food cravings in a way that is deeply relaxing, pleasurable, and rewarding.

Now, the sugary, starchy, fatty, and salty foods you reach for are called “hyperpalatables” in food-addiction-speak. Hyperpalatables stimulate the “dopamine” (good-feeling brain chemical) reward centers of your brain. However, eating more hyperpalatable foods actually lowers the number and responsiveness of those dopamine receptors. This leads you to eat more and more to get the same good-feeling “dopamine effect.” In other words, the more you eat of these foods, the more you crave them.

Add stress to the equation and the situation escalates. Stress hormones increase cravings and stimulate fat storage of all those extra calories. Furthermore, research shows that after stressful activities or under conditions of stress, you will have much lower will power to say “No” to these foods, even if you know they aren’t doing you any good.

For example, think of how you feel after a long day. Maybe you’ve been dealing with screaming kids, involved in tense negotiations, embroiled in an upsetting argument, hit with a stream of rejections in your sales efforts, or on the receiving end of some bad news. At that moment, you just don’t have the energy to make a wise choice—your resistance and good judgment are compromised. You want a reward. You want comfort. You want to soothe yourself.

Many of us reach for hyperpalatable comfort foods at those times. The more we do that, the stronger that habit becomes. Yet, it’s important to note that this is just a habit. It is something we can change.

However, when you’re in that state of stress, it’s not going to do much good to tell you not to eat those foods. Again, you just don’t have the resistance or the willpower at that moment. So, what can you do?

Here are three things you can do that directly affect the reward centers of your brain, increasing your dopamine levels and receptors—without the calories. More importantly, all three are surprisingly easy to do, especially when they become your new, go-to habits. All three will help you relax more deeply and feel better fast, while curbing your cravings.

1. Meditation

Recent research on meditation shows that regular practice increases dopamine production by up to 65 percent and naturally reduces impulsiveness and cravings. In addition, meditation practice increases the size of brain regions associated with observing thoughts, feelings, and behavior, weighing alternatives, and making wise decisions.

Meditation increases our ability to let go of what no longer serves us, so we can focus on what does. Not only that, meditation is super-relaxing and leads to the release of those good-feeling brain chemicals called endorphins (such as dopamine and serotonin).

Now, if you don’t have much experience meditating, you may find it challenging to guide your attention into a meditative state when you’re stressed or tired. In that case, a guided meditation can do the trick. All you need to do is turn on the audio, close your eyes and follow along. Pretty soon you’ll be rewarded with a much better state.

2. Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids

Supplementing your diet with “Omega 3s” as found in cold-water fish, such as salmon or cod, is another easy way to counter the effects of stress and food cravings. Omega 3s have been shown to increase dopamine receptors in the brain, increase serotonin production, and increase Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) which stimulates memory, increases brain cell growth, and decreases anxiety and depression. Omega 3s also help to grow those parts of your brain associated with calm control of your thinking and behavior. Eating cold-water fish or supplementing with fish oils is easy to do and relatively inexpensive.

3. Moderate Exercise

Exercise is a third action that increases BDNF, increases dopamine receptors in the brain, stimulates the frontal lobes of your brain associated with making good decisions, and initiates a natural relaxation response when you are finished. In other words, your body will naturally relax after you exercise, without you even thinking about it. After exercise, your body and brain are also stimulated to regenerate, effectively countering aging processes that are accelerated by stress. In addition, you’ll burn off some of that fat from previous craving cycles.

Best of all, exercise doesn’t have to be intense to do the trick. If you take regular breaks to get up and move, even for 5 minutes at a time, you’ll initiate some positive changes. Taking a daily walk to the point where you feel yourself breathing deeply is a great way to give yourself a break and get those powerful exercise effects. Most importantly, if you exercise in a way that you enjoy, you are much more likely to do it regularly—which is the real key.

Begin with any one of these three actions and you’ll start to lower your stress and your cravings, while being rewarded with good-feeling neurochemistry. Combine them all and you’ll change your life.

To learn more about effective meditation, the number one technique to reduce stress and curb your cravings, check out the Resource Box below.

Enjoy your practice!

Author's Bio: 

Are you ready to de-stress, quiet your mind, and relax deeply? Discover how to take your stress management to the next level. For tips and techniques to reduce stress be sure to visit us here.

Kevin Schoeninger graduated from Villanova University in 1986 with a Master's Degree in Philosophy. He is certified as a Life Coach, Reiki Master Teacher, Qigong Meditation Instructor, and Personal Fitness Trainer.