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Stress Feeds the Need for Comfort Food

Chemical Link Found Between Stress and Cookie Cravings
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WebMD Health News

Sept. 9, 2003 -- Reaching for the cookie jar at the first sign of bad news may actually be healthy.

New research suggests that high-fat, high-carbohydrate comfort foods actually fight stress by stemming the tide of stress-related hormones that are released when people are acutely exposed to stress.

But there's a hitch.

Researchers say those same ingredients in your favorite comfort foods that work to reduce stress and decrease stress hormones also pile on the pounds around the waist and increase the risk of obesity when stress is chronic. The researchers say that over the long haul habitual use of these comfort foods may cause an increase in those same hormones, leading to increased amounts of abdominal fat -- a risk factor for heart disease.

Comfort Food Fights Short-term Stress

In the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers investigated the effects of comfort foods on stressed-out rats.

They found that when rats exposed to stress ate foods high in carbohydrates and fat, an unknown component in the foods acted like a brake on the cascade of stress-related hormones, such as the steroid cortisol, and hormones that are related to the "fight or flight" syndrome.

Stress sets off this syndrome and causes non-vital bodily functions to shut down. Meanwhile, adrenaline levels increase, heart rate quickens, and the immune system gets a boost.

Although this type of reaction is good if you're staring down a grizzly bear, researchers say chronic exposure to stress puts the body into overdrive, continuously stimulating these hormones, which can increase long-term health risks.

In addition, researchers say that their findings suggest that this constant exposure to stress can also trigger a potentially dangerous urge to indulge in rich comfort foods.

"There is no doubt that eating high fat and carbohydrate comfort foods cheers people up and may make them feel and function better," write researcher Mary F. Dallman, of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues.

"However, habitual use of these foods, perhaps stimulated by abnormally elevated concentrations of cortisol as a consequence of underlying stressors, results in abdominal obesity," they write. Unfortunately, this type of obesity is strongly associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke."

Researchers say occasionally indulging in mom's macaroni and cheese or chocolate chip cookies is probably useful to relieve anxiety in the short-term. But habitually using comfort foods to combat chronic stress is likely to be bad for long-term health and could be contributing the current epidemic of obesity in the U.S.

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