Lab Mouse - ©

Sunday Musings: Chronic Stress Creates Comfort Food Cravings

You may have suspected this, just from your own experience. But science has now confirmed that chronic stress drives junk food cravings. And can lead to a whole slew of health issues…

Stress Eating - © fidori comConstant stress can drive dangerous cravings for junk food…

It’s more complicated than a common hunger response, and harder to ignore. Researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research say they may have decoded the connection between stress and junk food cravings.

What they did

The team set up mouse-based experiments to determine how different areas in the brain responded to chronic stress under various diets.

“We discovered that an area known as the lateral habenula, which is normally involved in switching off the brain’s reward response, was active in mice on a short-term, high-fat diet to protect the animal from overeating. However, when mice were chronically stressed, this part of the brain remained silent – allowing the reward signals to stay active and encourage feeding for pleasure, no longer responding to satiety regulatory signals,” explains study first author Dr Kenny Chi Kin Ip.

What they found

“Our findings reveal stress can override a natural brain response that diminishes the pleasure gained from eating — meaning the brain is continuously rewarded to eat,” says Professor Herzog, senior author of the study and Visiting Scientist at the Garvan Institute.

“We showed that chronic stress, combined with a high-calorie diet, can drive more and more food intake, as well as a preference for sweet, highly palatable food, thereby promoting weight gain and obesity. This research highlights how crucial a healthy diet is during times of stress.”

The takeaway

“In [short term] stressful situations it’s easy to use a lot of energy, and the feeling of reward can calm you down – this is when a boost of energy through food is useful. But when experienced over long periods of time, stress appears to change the equation, driving eating that is bad for the body long term,” Herzog explains.

The researchers say their findings identify stress as a critical regulator of eating habits, which can override the brain’s natural ability to balance energy needs.

“[Our] research emphasises just how much stress can compromise a healthy energy metabolism,” says Professor Herzog. “It’s a reminder to avoid a stressful lifestyle, and crucially – if you are dealing with long-term stress – try to eat a healthy diet and lock away the junk food.”

My take

What the team did not discover is how to control the increased craving for junk food we all experience when under chronic stress… Do you think YOU can manage to resist the call of the cravings in uber-stressful times? Your body and mind with both thank you for your fortitude!

Muse on that…

~ Maggie J.