Stress and eating habits share a complex relationship. Stress depletes energy because the body uses up resources to handle the stressor. Consequently, the body seeks high-fat, high-sugar foods to replenish these depleted resources. With this energy boost, the body becomes more equipped to manage stress, and this results in a drop in cortisol levels. Yet, habitual reliance on these foods can evolve into comfort eating.


In this context, practicing yoga emerges as an alternative to disrupt this cycle and manage stress without resorting to comfort foods. Engaging in yoga reduces stress and cortisol levels, which lowers cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. We also become more relaxed, which leads to calmer emotions and less emotional volatility, and this, in turn, reduces the tendency for comfort eating. Additionally, reduced stress results in improved sleep, better digestive health, increased energy for physical activity, and heightened mindfulness, all of which contribute to diminishing the urge for emotional eating.

How Stress Triggers Emotional Eating

When stressed, the body releases cortisol as part of its ‘fight or flight’ response. This hormone acts as a natural alarm system which prepares us to either confront or flee from a threat.


Then the body reduces stress through various responses. One way is by releasing hormones like endorphins and serotonin, which counterbalance the effects of cortisol. Another way is by adjusting brain pathways in areas that play a role in controlling stress. Additionally, there seems to be a dietary response mechanism where, under stress, we consume more high-fat, high-sugar foods which in turn lowers cortisol levels. This connection between diet and cortisol levels has been demonstrated through research. One recent study, for instance, looked into whether eating foods high in fats and sugars could help reduce stress. In this study, 54 participants aged 18 to 49 were split into a high-sugar group and a control group, and each faced a stressful situation. Researchers then checked their saliva for cortisol to gauge their stress response. They found that those who ate more sugar had a less intense cortisol response, meaning that their cortisol increased less and peaked at lower levels. These findings suggest that high-calorie foods, especially sugary ones, might help dampen the body’s stress response.


This inclination to eat high-sugar foods under stress helps explain why we seek out these foods when feeling pressured or anxious. Over time, this behavior may turn into a habit where we consistently reach for sugary or fatty foods whenever we are stressed. As a result, emotional eating can become a common way to handle stress.


Practicing Yoga to Lower Stress: Insights from Research


There are various activities that help lower cortisol levels and mitigate stress response. Engaging in aerobic exercise, spending time in nature, pursuing creative arts, and socializing with friends or family are all effective in reducing stress. Yet, among the many options, yoga stands out as particularly beneficial, as shown by multiple research studies. One study, for example, involved a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat with 38 participants. After the yoga retreat, the participants not only reported reduced feelings of anxiety but also showed an improved cortisol awakening response (CAR). As CAR signals a more balanced stress response upon waking, this finding suggests that yoga and meditation have a positive impact on the body’s stress response system.


Another study followed 55 first-year medical students who were experiencing high stress levels due to academic pressure. They were divided into a yoga and a control group. The morning cortisol levels of both groups were measured at the beginning of the study. Then the yoga group was instructed to practice asanas for 1 hour a day over 12 weeks while the control group did not receive any specific instructions.


After the study, researchers used statistical analysis to measure morning cortisol levels. While the control group showed a slight increase in cortisol levels (3.4%), the yoga group experienced a significant drop (4.8%). This reduction was statistically significant, which makes it unlikely to be due to chance.


Another study focused on a specific type of yoga, laughter yoga where people pretend to laugh and do yoga breathing. In this study, researchers divided 35 participants into three groups: one engaged in laughter yoga, another did relaxing breathing exercises, and the last group didn’t do any special activity.  Following the sessions, all three groups underwent a stress test aimed at intensifying their stress levels. Their saliva levels of cortisol and alpha amylase, indicators of stress were also measured repeatedly.


Interestingly, the results showed a distinct pattern in the laughter yoga group. Only this group had lower cortisol levels after the stress test, which indicates they experienced a lesser stress response.


This is a significant finding, as it suggests that laughter yoga might have the ability to mitigate stress, in contrast to relaxation breathing or no activity. This points towards the potential of laughter yoga as a simple yet effective tool for managing stress.


Harnessing Postures, Breathing, and Meditation for Stress Relief


Yoga effectively combats stress through its three foundational practices: physical postures, controlled breathing, and meditation. Postures alleviate tension through stretching and promote relaxation through calming techniques. Controlled breathing activates respiratory receptors that signal to the brain to initiate relaxation and reduce stress response. Meditation, on the other hand, strengthens the prefrontal cortex, which is central to regulating the stress reactions.


Physical Postures


The physical postures in yoga, known broadly as asanas, play a key role in the process. They help lower stress levels by combining stretching and relaxation. The stretching component targets tension and tightness in the muscles and joints which are often a direct manifestation of stress. Furthermore, relaxation communicates to the nervous system that there are no immediate threats or stressors present. This triggers a reduction in the production of cortisol which reduces overall stress levels.


Vrksasana or the Tree Pose is a good example of this balance. The stretching aspect comes into play as you balance on one leg and place the other foot on the inner thigh or calf. This stretches the muscles in the standing leg and hip. The relaxation phase occurs when you release the pose, stand on both feet, and breathe deeply. This moment of grounding and stability signals the nervous system to enter a relaxed state, which aids in stress reduction.


Setu Bandhasana or the Bridge Pose, follows a similar pattern. While lying on your back and lifting your hips, you stretch the front body. This helps release tension in areas like the chest and thighs. Then, as you lower your hips back to the floor, this movement transitions you into relaxation. This gentle return to a resting position helps shift the body into a calmer state and reduces stress levels.


Controlled Breathing


Complementing the asanas, pranayama, or deep, controlled breathing, further enhances this relaxation process. When we practice it, this altered breathing pattern is recognized by specialized respiratory receptors which are sensitive to the rate and depth of our breaths. Once these receptors detect the slow, deep breaths typical of a relaxed state, they send signals to the brain to start the relaxation response. This involves activating the parasympathetic nervous system which acts to decrease heart rate and blood pressure and relax the muscles, leading to a state of relaxation.

Several breathing techniques effectively engage this natural mechanism for stress reduction. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is one such method. It involves inhaling quietly through the nose for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and exhaling forcefully through the mouth for eight seconds.

The effectiveness of this technique lies in the longer time spent on each phase compared to normal breathing. This extended duration helps stimulate the respiratory receptors more than usual.

Another method, alternate nostril breathing, involves alternating the flow of air through each nostril. You close one nostril while inhaling and then switch for the exhale.

With this method, the respiratory receptors are effectively activated due to their sensitivity to varied breathing patterns. These receptors are designed to detect changes in the rate and rhythm of breathing; so, when a pattern deviates from the norm, they become more alert and active.

A third technique worth mentioning is Bhramari Pranayama or Bee Breath. With this technique, you inhale through your nose and produce a humming sound like a bee while exhaling. Here, the effectiveness of activating the respiratory receptors comes from the vibrational humming sound. These receptors respond not only to the depth and rate of breathing but also to vibration. As the sensation of this vibration activates the receptors, this signals the brain to initiate relaxation response.




Meditation, another core aspect of yoga, targets stress management by enhancing the function of the prefrontal cortex. This, in turn, improves its control over the body’s stress response.


The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain responsible for high-level functions like rational thinking, decision-making, emotional regulation, and focus. Meditation, which mainly involves maintaining attention, enhances the brain’s focusing capabilities. Because all brain functions are interconnected, boosting focus improves other prefrontal cortex functions, including emotional regulation.


When the prefrontal cortex gets better at emotional regulation, it effectively moderates the amygdala’s responses, the brain’s primary center for emotional and stress reactions. When faced with situations that trigger an intense emotional response, a well-trained prefrontal cortex can send inhibitory signals to calm the amygdala down. This improved control leads to a more balanced and controlled emotional response to stress.


One practice that facilitates such brain training is mindfulness meditation. It achieves this by focusing on the present and observing immediate experiences without attachment to any of them. These experiences, such as your breath, bodily sensations, and thoughts, act as anchors to refocus attention on the present moment. This repeated refocusing improves the brain’s capacity for attention and concentration which in turn improves its ability to regulate emotions and respond to stress.


Focused attention meditation is another approach to enhancing brain function. This practice involves the focusing of attention on a single target, such as the breath, a sound, or a visual object. When attention drifts away, you consciously redirect focus back to the chosen object. This process strengthens the brain’s capacity for sustained attention, thereby improving its ability to manage stress responses. Moreover, singular concentration helps quiet the constant stream of thoughts and worries that often triggers stress and anxiety.


The Impact of Stress Reduction on Emotional Eating


When stress goes down and cortisol levels drop, our cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods – the body’s mechanism to reduce cortisol – also diminish. With reduced cravings, we are less likely to turn to these foods for comfort. But there is more. With stress under control and a prevailing sense of calm, we experience milder emotions. This stability reduces the likelihood of mood swings and emotional volatility which often lead to comfort eating.


Furthermore, as stress levels drop, the quality of our sleep improves, and we enjoy deeper, more restorative rest. This improvement balances the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which regulate our appetite. Keeping appetite in check, in turn, reduces the likelihood of overeating in response to emotional triggers.


Stress reduction also leads to better digestive health. Under stress, we may experience gastrointestinal discomfort, which can be mistakenly interpreted as hunger. As stress diminishes and this discomfort subsides, we are left with only genuine hunger signals. This clarity ensures that we eat when we are truly hungry and not in response to misinterpreted physical cues.


Additionally, decreased stress results in increased energy levels. When stress is managed effectively, the body conserves energy that would otherwise be spent on maintaining a heightened state of alertness. With increased energy as a result of this conservation, we are more inclined to engage in physical activity. Regular exercise or participating in active hobbies can then serve as a distraction from the habits of emotional eating.


Also, as stress is reduced and the mind becomes less preoccupied with stressors, room is created for increased presence and awareness in each moment. This heightened mindfulness helps us to become more attuned to our body’s signals, including those related to hunger and fullness. We are better able to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional cravings and less likely to eat in response to emotions.


Lastly when stress diminishes, it frees up mental and emotional resources previously engaged in managing stressors. With these resources now at our disposal, we are more inclined to explore activities such as physical exercise, creative endeavors, or social engagements. These activities enrich our lives and provide the fulfillment and satisfaction previously sought through emotional eating.

Wrapping Up


Exploring the link between stress and our eating patterns reveals a clear path forward through the practice of yoga. By engaging in yoga’s three elements – physical movements, breathing, and focused meditation – we activate a natural counterbalance to stress. As yoga reduces cortisol, which often causes cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods, the urge for such foods declines. Simultaneously, it leads to fewer emotional fluctuations which often compel us to seek solace in eating.