A cup of English black tea is shown next to a cup of sugar and a cup of cream.
A surefire element for a stress-free afternoon: a good cup of English black tea. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Stress eating is a fact of life for many women.

Here’s why: When you experience stress or anxiety, your level of the stress hormone cortisol tends to rise. This drives your insulin level up and makes your blood sugar level drop.

Hormonal ups and downs of your monthly cycle or perimenopause can complicate the situation.

“When estrogen falls, it can cause insulin resistance and craving sugar,” said Diana Bitner, MD, NCMP, a women’s health specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

To lower your stress cravings, try these tips from Dr. Bitner and dietitian Irene Franowicz:

Tip 1: Don’t starve yourself.

“You are busy all day doing, doing, doing … then, after five or six hours, primal hunger sets in because your body is trying to make up for not eating,” Franowicz said. “Instead, eat every three to four hours. A mixed meal, with complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fat will sustain your blood sugar and help you resist snacking or giving in to cravings.”

For example, try oatmeal with dried blueberries for breakfast. You’ll get fiber and a satisfying amount of sweetness to start your day on the right foot.

Tip 2: Keep healthy snacks handy.

If you’re stressed and hungry, it’s tempting to reach for what’s easy. Too often, that means candy bars and potato chips.

“Be armed with good snacks,” Franowicz said. She suggests Greek yogurt with nuts, good whole grain crackers with cheese, or trail mix with almonds, dried cranberries and dark chocolate.

Yup, dark chocolate. Franowicz is a fan. She also suggests a quick energy snack of two squares of Dove dark chocolate or a few dark chocolate-covered almonds.

“Dark chocolate increases nitric oxide, helps to dilate blood vessels and decreases blood pressure,” she said.

Tip 3: Drink the right stuff.

Instead of soft drinks, try a different afternoon pick-me-up.

“Black tea can be helpful,” Franowicz said. “There was a study showing that people who drank black tea after a stressful situation felt calmer and had lower levels of cortisol.”

If that doesn’t appeal to you, consider an alternative like chai with milk or almond milk. Or make hot chocolate with cocoa powder, milk and stevia.

“Cocoa has nutrients and flavonoids that relax blood vessels and improve blood flow,” she said. “It helps the old brain work.”

Tip 4: Get your Zzzs.

Sleep seven or eight hours a night to feel less hungry, less stressed and less tempted to snack.

Why? When you’re shortchanged on sleep, you develop higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry.

On the other hand, getting enough sleep builds up your leptin, a hormone that suppresses your appetite, and serotonin, a chemical that helps balance your moods.

Tip 5: Take a walk.

Want to resist the temptation for sweets? Get outside.

“A British study showed that a brisk, 15-minute walk reduces cravings,” Franowicz said.

The combination of removing yourself from stressful situations and getting some sunlight also improves serotonin levels.

Tip 6: Try yoga.

Have a chronic craving for sugar? Yoga could turn off the cravings. That’s because the calming exercises, breath work and meditation can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

“If you even take five minutes each day to breathe, it helps lower cortisol levels,” Franowicz said.

Tip 7: Deal with your issues.

Finally, remember that unresolved issues can trigger stress eating. So whether you’re dealing with a problem you can’t figure out or struggling with something you can’t control, seek out support.

“Many women turn to food when other needs are not being met,” Dr. Bitner said. “It’s like saying, ‘If I eat, I don’t need to think.'”