Stress, Hormones and Food Choices

by Theresa Greenwell, International Science

Stress has long been associated with changes in health, overeating, eating greater amounts of sweets/sugary foods and weight gain.

Stress can be acute or chronic.  Acute stress is short-term and occurs more commonly than chronic stress. Acute stress can be due to anticipated or current events that are taking place in one’s life.  Chronic stress, on the other hand, is long-term and continuous. It occurs from the day-after-day exposure to high demands or pressures in one’s life.  What makes it worse is that a person suffering from chronic stress often cannot see a way out of their situation. Either form of stress can affect overall health, eating, sleeping and weight.

Experts often point to hormones as being the major players in why and how we response to stress. These hormones, in turn, affect digestion, metabolism, respiration, heart rate and even energy production in the body. Research has shown that both the adrenals and thyroid, being hormone secreting organs, can be negatively impacted by stress. The hormones these organs produced, when secreted in large or small amounts, can have severe consequences for the body. One of the consequences often associate with stress is weight gain or obesity.

Some of the weight gain seen during stress can be blamed on “emotional” or “stress” eating. Often noted is the fact that many people, when stressed, reach for chocolate, sweets and other sugary foods. Why is this?  According to research done by the Monell Chemical Sciences Center (Neuroscience Letters, 2014) it may have to do with the effects of hormones on our taste buds.

This new research identified receptor sites for stress-activated hormones on oral taste cells.  The Monell team found that glucocorticoid (GC) type stress hormones activate receptors within certain taste cells but not all. The cells affected are those that are responsible for the ability to taste sweet, bitter and umami (savory flavor), with the greatest number of receptors in those cells for sweet and umami.

The Monell team believes that since stress hormones can apparently affect our sense of taste, the changes may give some indication as to why the way we eat is also affected during times of stress. It may very well be that sweet items taste better and therefore are more satisfying during stressful periods.  If this is so, then it may be easy to associate long-term stress or repeating bouts of short-term stress with weight gain.

More research is necessary to definitively identify exactly how our taste cells are affected by stress and how this may affect our eating.  It could be that stress hormones may not only affect our taste cells in our mouths, but may also affect those in the gut and pancreas. If these other taste cells are also affected, then how sugar and other nutrients are metabolized may also be impacted which may then alter the appetite.

Stress can have many negative effects on the body.  Researchers are regularly trying to identify exact mechanisms by which stress can affect different responses.  If we can identify some of the exact mechanisms by which our bodies respond to stress, treatments or programs may one day be tailored to help control or minimize any negative consequences.