Have you ever wondered why you get food cravings or just can’t stop eating when you’re stressed? In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, researchers found that 80 percent of people report eating more sweets when they are stressed. Turns out there are biological reasons for this frustrating phenomenon.
When short-term stress strikes, your body responds differently. The hypothalamus in your brain produces corticotropin-releasing hormone, which actually suppresses appetite. At the same time, messages are sent to the adrenal glands to release adrenalin – thus the body’s fight of flight response is triggered. At this point, your appetite is actually suppressed so your body can focus on the stress.
However, long-term stress causes your body to react differently – increasing your appetite and leading to food cravings. The adrenal glands release cortisol, which makes you hungry as well as motivates you to want to eat. In theory, when the stress dissipates, your cortisol levels should return to normal. But in the case of chronic stress, the cortisol levels remain elevated.
Not only does long-term stress make you hungry and want to eat, but it also influences what you want to eat. Studies have shown that the high cortisol levels associated with physical or emotional stress increases the intake of foods high in fat and sugar. They truly are comfort foods because the body’s response after eating them is to inhibit activity in the parts of the brain that produce stress. That explains why when you’re stressed, you crave sweet foods.
The aforementioned study involved 19 women, ages 18 to 40, who spent three days on a low-sugar diet at a research facility. Saliva samples and MRIs were taken and stress was induced through timed math tests. After being discharged, over the course of 12 days, the women consumed sweetened drinks three times a day. Half had beverages sweetened with the artificial sweetener aspartame, while the rest had drinks sweetened with real sucrose (sugar). An additional three-day stay at the facility followed during which MRIs and saliva samples were again taken.
After the 12-day period, the group that had sucrose-sweetened beverages showed higher activity in the left hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory that is sensitive to chronic stress) and significantly reduced levels of cortisol compared to those who had artificially sweetened beverages. Researchers concluded that sugar reduces the stress response in humans.
If you’re someone who suffers from chronic stress and you feed your stress with sugar, try making behavioral changes. When you find yourself craving that sugar, replace it with fruit. Many fruits can satisfy your sweet tooth, without the fat calories – try bananas, raspberries, melon or even a sweet apple. The goal is to train your body to crave something healthy instead of those sugary sweets.