If you’ve ever found yourself reaching for a carton of ice cream when under pressure, you’re not the only one – and your cravings for sweets when you’re stressed may be based in science.
A research team at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA conducted a study to discover the molecular mechanisms behind stress eating. When stressed, the endocrine system secretes hormones known as glucocorticoids, or GCs, which are picked up by specialized GC receptors found in cells throughout the body. These activated GC receptors then influence the way those cells function. The researchers, whose findings were published in the Neuroscience Letters journal, set out to determine if there’s a link between this hormone and the intake of sugary foods during periods of high stress.
Their study found high concentrations of GC receptors in the taste bud cells responsible for perceiving sweet tastes, indicating that the release of GC may affect the way we taste and even which foods we reach for when stressed. However, the existence of GC receptors does not necessarily mean that the cells will be affected by stress. To establish the connection between stress and sweets, the researchers compared the level of activated GC receptors in the taste buds of mice under no stress with those under high stress. The stressed mice had 77 percent more activated GC receptors on their tongues, which demonstrated that stress does have a direct effect on these particular receptors and therefore may alter the way we taste sweets and increase our cravings for them.
If you find yourself reaching for salty foods instead of sweets when stressed, science may have an explanation for that as well. The research team reports that although stress seems to have the strongest effect on perceptions of sweets in taste buds on the tongue, it may also affect the perception and intake of foods that are salty, bitter, and sour. They point out that taste buds also exist in the gut and that tastes are processed in the brain, and GC receptors in those areas may be what kicks up cravings for other types of food when stressed. Although the team states that further research is needed, the same process that leads us to the cookie jar may lead us to the potato chip bag.
Just because the Monell researchers found that stress-induced sweet cravings may be initiated by hormones doesn’t mean that they can’t be controlled. If you find yourself craving sweets as a tactic for dealing with stress, try turning to healthy sugars, particularly those found in fresh fruits. Also remember that you can limit these cravings by using more effective methods for lowering stress. Take a moment to listen to calming music, go for a brief walk outside, do some stretches, or say a prayer.
Catherine Swift is an intern this summer with Spirituality & Health. She is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying religion, the environment, and medical anthropology.