Do food and alcohol really help you relax?

For many of us in lockdown, having a special meal with a loved one (virtual or otherwise) or just putting our feet up with a tasty snack and a tipple can help us unwind and, in fact, there is some evidence to show that this works.

How does eating reduce stress? 

We often talk about ‘comfort eating’, but how does that actually work?

In the short term, stress tends to reduce your appetite, but if the stress keeps on coming the opposite happens. The adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol which increases your appetite. It also tends to increase the stores of fat in the abdomen. Studies also seem to show that fatty, sugary foods may reduce the stress response, so they genuinely do make us feel better, when we first eat them.

Why do we drink more alcohol when we’re stressed?

Women are more likely than men to turn to food for comfort, but men are more likely to use alcohol or tobacco to help them cope. Alcohol is a sedative which affects the nervous system and alters your brain chemistry, especially the parts that deal with rewards and pleasure. In the short term, this can help you forget your stress, feel happier and more relaxed and get to sleep easier. (Having said that, although alcohol may help you drop off, it doesn’t keep you asleep for long, and it’s also a diuretic so you’re more likely to wake early to use the loo.)

Both alcohol and food are avoidance tactics, they take your mind off what is stressing you out. If that’s an occasional thing, it’s not great for your health but your body will bounce back. But, as a regular coping strategy, excessive food and alcohol do more harm than good and may prevent you from taking practical steps to reduce the stress you are under. And if you put on weight or start to worry about your drinking, your stress will increase.

You can’t remove all stress from your daily life, but you can learn to deal with it in ways that don’t simply create more stress down the line. We have plenty of tips for relaxing without food or alcohol on this site, but here are our top picks.

Calorie- and Alcohol Free Ways to Relax:

  • Use mindfulness. Mindfulness is ‘trendy’ at present so you might be rolling your eyes and thinking ‘not again’. But there is plenty of evidence to show it works and its popularity means there are lots of free apps to help you start.
  • If mindfulness isn’t ‘your thing’ try colouring books. We’re not kidding, they really do help – see how colouring books can help your stress levels here.
  • Use guided relaxation. Like this free one from stress expert Debbie Waller.
  • Learn to breathe properly. There’s a lot of research to show that breathing exercises, which are easy to learn, can help reduce your stress levels. Try this quick fix relaxation.
  • Be proactive in protecting yourself from stress. There are tips for this here.
  • Get into green space. Even urban spaces with greenery will help improve your health and reduce your stress. Find out more about nature and stress here.
  • Get regular exercise: stress is basically a burst of energy to help you deal with an emergency. Yoga, sports, dancing and walking all help you wear off the stress hormones naturally.
  • Spend time with your pet if you have one. Studies show that stroking a dog or cat helps us to relax, and talking to any pet can be less stressful than confiding in people because we don’t worry about being judged. Find out more about how pets can reduce your stress here.
  • Talk it over. Then again, your pet may not have much advice or insight to offer. It’s true that a problem shared is a problem halved because others see your situation from the outside and may come up with solutions you haven’t thought of. If a friend can’t help, a therapist might.
  • Have a good laugh. It’s officially good for you because it decreases stress hormones and increases endorphins – chemicals that make us feel good. Learn more about the benefits of laughter here.

You’ll find more healthy, stress-busting tips on this blog, and if you need help putting any of them into place, please contact us.


Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.
Debbie is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook both of which are available from Amazon.
Find out more about Debbie's services on  or phone 01977 678593