Chronic stress combined with comfort foods like high-calorie snacks can cause certain changes in the brain that may lead to overeating, increased cravings for palatable foods and eventually weight gain, according to a new study.
Published in the journal Neuron, researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research found that chronic stress when paired with high-calorie foods leads to brain changes, which causes more eating and enhanced cravings for sweets.
According to researchers, over time, that can lead to excessive weight gain and other health concerns.
Professor Herbert Herzog, senior author of the study, said:
“Our study 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.”
In the study, the researchers found that chronic stress can disrupt the brain’s natural response to satiety. As per the researchers, that’s due to chronic stress disrupting the brain’s lateral habenula, which is a region that works to suppress the reward signals related to eating.
Talking about the findings, Professor Herzog said:
“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.”
Furthermore, he also stressed the importance of maintaining a healthy diet, especially during periods of excessive stress.
What’s the link between chronic stress and comfort food?
While some people eat more during times of stress and turn to comfort foods high in fat and sugar, others might eat less and keep a check on their diet.
To better understand these different eating habits, researchers used mouse models to study how different regions in the brain react to stress under different dietary routines.
Researchers found that when mice experienced stress, their lateral habenula wasn’t active, which affected the reward signals and led to eating for pleasure rather than hunger. Researchers even found that stressed mice gained twice as much weight as the non-stressed ones while being on the same diet.
Dr. Kenny Chi Kin lp, the first author of the study, said:
“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.”
“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.”
Chronic stress and unhealthy diet: What’s the connection between the two?
Researchers also focused on the complicated relationship between diet preferences and stress. To identify the relation between the two, they used a sucralose preference test on mice. The test involved giving mice the choice to consume either artificially sweetened water or plain water.
As a result, it was found that stressed mice who were on a high-fat diet consumed three times more sucralose than mice that were not stressed but on a high-fat diet alone.
This finding suggested that not only does stress increase cravings, but it specifically triggers craving for high-calorie and palatable foods.
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