Stress Feeds the Need for Comfort Food
Chemical Link Found Between Stress and Cookie Cravings
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.