The intense food cravings were driving her crazy. The more she ate, the more she wanted… delicious meals that used to bring satisfaction now held her only briefly. Incessant work demands left her overwhelmed and anxious… and the higher her stress level rose, the harder it was to fight the constant hunger.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Then you have something in common with research scientist Rachael F. Heller, PhD, who used the words above to describe her struggle with stress-induced hyperphagia, or overeating brought on by stress — until she discovered its cause and its cure.

Key concept: Stress eating is not about lack of willpower — it is a physical disorder caused by a hormonal imbalance.

According to Dr. Rachael Heller and her husband, Richard F. Heller, PhD, both retired professors at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, stress eating is marked by compelling hunger or recurring cravings — typically for high-carbohydrate and/or high-fat foods — initially triggered by any one of various types of stress, such as frustration, guilt, exhaustion, etc. Over time, ongoing or repeated stress leads to a hormonal imbalance… and eventually the person gets trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of stress eating that can persist even if the initial stress trigger disappears.

Not all stress eaters have the same type of hormonal imbalance. In their new book, The Stress Eating Cure, the Hellers identify 11 distinct stress-eating patterns, each linked to a particular hormonal imbalance. Their findings are based on more than two decades of research — including the examination of thousands of pages of detailed daily logs from research subjects who recorded their food intake, hunger levels, cravings, activities and emotions… analysis of the scientific literature on behaviors and emotions linked to hormonal imbalances… plus years of refining type-specific stress-eating treatment strategies.

To overcome stress eating: You need to identify which type of stress eater you are… and (with your doctor’s OK) take steps to rebalance your hormones, reducing those that are high and raising those that are low.

Benefit: Once your hormones are in balance, if you want to lose weight, you won’t need to deprive yourself of foods you love — because when the physiological cause of stress eating is eliminated, stress-induced hunger, cravings and weight problems disappear naturally.

WHAT HORMONES DO

The following hormones are among those that dictate the stress-eating response…

Cortisol, the master stress hormone, affects all other hormones involved in stress eating. When stress levels and cortisol levels soar, you feel hunger and cravings — even when your body does not need food.

Adrenaline is released when a threat — real or imagined — is perceived. As the adrenal glands pour adrenaline into the bloodstream, you may be driven to eat too much, too quickly and too often. Eventually, chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue and the glands cease this outpouring… and the resulting low adrenaline levels can impair self-restraint and motivation.

Oxytocin promotes bonding and affection. Low oxytocin, the result of ongoing stress, can cause adrenaline to spike, driving you to eat… high oxytocin can make adrenaline plummet, weakening your weight-control resolve.

Dopamine is the pleasure hormone. When you are starved for pleasure, dopamine is low — and you try to fix that with food. High adrenaline levels also can interfere with dopamine’s effects.

THE RIGHT APPROACH FOR YOU

The following types of stress eaters are among the most common identified by the Hellers. If you see aspects of yourself in several categories, find the one that fits you most and follow that protocol. (If you suspect that you are a stress eater but do not identify with any of the types below, check The Stress Eating Cure for additional types.) Here is help for the…

Anxiety-induced stress eater. You carry the weight of the world on your shoulders… experience near-constant internal tension… and fear impending disaster. When worried, you eat. Hormone imbalance: High cortisol… high adrenaline.

Recovery strategies: To reduce adrenaline, choose chewy or crunchy foods that require physical work to eat — nuts and seeds that you have to shell, lean steak or raw vegetables that require a lot of chewing. With your doctor’s OK, regularly engage in a fast-moving, full-body workout, such as kickboxing or jumping rope. To reduce cortisol, enjoy a professional massage or a back rub from a friend once or twice a week, if possible, for at least 15 minutes… or simply do some self-massage for a few minutes each day.

Self-sacrificing stress eater. You put everyone else’s needs before your own… but the more you give, the less you seem to get. Starved for pleasure, you use food as compensation. Hormone imbalance: High adrenaline… low dopamine.

Recovery strategies: To increase dopamine, add pleasurable activities to your daily routine — listening to favorite music, luxuriating in a hot bath. To reduce adrenaline, try meditating. Also be aware that foods made with cinnamon or chili peppers can trigger adrenaline spikes. You needn’t give these up, but do accompany them with a creamy, soothing food (yogurt, sour cream) to mitigate their adrenaline-boosting effects.

Frustration-induced stress eater. You often feel as if you are fighting the world… you vacillate between feelings of exasperation and powerlessness… when thwarted, you assuage disappointment with food. Hormone imbalance: High adrenaline… low oxytocin.

Recovery strategies: To raise oxytocin, engage in more touching or bonding experiences — share a meal with a friend, play with a pet, get a massage, make love. Vitamin C also increases oxytocin, so include citrus fruit at breakfast. Have spicy foods made with chili peppers, which contain oxytocin-boosting capsaicin — but be sure to offset the adrenaline-raising effects by also eating a creamy food.

Social stress eater. You’re at a party or restaurant, distracted by the hubbub or conversation, when suddenly you realize that — without intending to — you’ve eaten every treat that has come your way. Hormone imbalance: High oxytocin… low adrenaline.

Recovery strategies: When you are overeating or about to overeat in a social setting, you need an adrenaline boost — so find a private place and bounce from one foot to the other, take some quick breaths and throw a few punches in the air. If possible, eat something spicy. Then get into a lively conversation — this can raise adrenaline by sparking excitement.

ESSENTIAL STRATEGIES FOR ALL STRESS EATERS

No matter what your stress-eating type, to help balance your hormones…

Have a big, balanced breakfast that includes carbohydrate-rich foods (emphasizing complex carbs)… lean protein… healthful unsaturated fats… and a favorite “comfort food.” This hormone-balancing big breakfast leaves you feeling more satisfied and less tempted to snack or binge. Sample breakfast menu: Whole-wheat bagel with lox and cream cheese, two scrambled eggs or egg whites, cereal with milk, small cinnamon scone and tea or coffee.

Alternative: On days when you have no time or inclination for a big, balanced breakfast, have what the Hellers call a big, balanced “alternative meal” for lunch or dinner that includes the same hormone-balancing combination of foods described above, plus vegetables and/or salad.

Note: All other meals and snacks each day should be both low in carbohydrates and saturated fats and high in fiber.

Choose foods closest to their natural state — minimally processed foods are less likely to throw hormones out of balance. Especially avoid diet soda and other foods containing sugar substitutes, which can be linked to elevated blood sugar levels… and monosodium glutamate, which can trigger hunger, cravings, irritability and loss of motivation.