You know the drill: it’s crunch time at work, so they bring in extra boxes of doughnuts. You’re on the way back from a rough weekend with the family, so you stop at the DQ drive through. You get into a big fight with your girlfriend, and it’s time to reach for the Oreos. We know all that stuff’s delicious—but why do we reach for sugar whenever life deals up stress?
A new study from the Journal of Clinical and Endocrinology and Metabolism has found that sugar can reduce our stress hormone, cortisol, in a way that artificial sweeteners like aspartame cannot.
More worryingly, researchers write, “These experimental findings support a metabolic-brain-negative feedback pathway that is affected by sugar and may make some people under stress more hooked on sugar and possibly more vulnerable to obesity and its related conditions.”
For the study, researchers looked at fMRI scans of their subjects attempting to solve difficult math problems. One group was fed sugar, the other aspartame. The stress of the math problems caused stimulation in the part of the brain responsible for our fight-or-flight response, which is also our reaction to math problems. However, those fed sugar saw a decrease in that stimulation. Moreover, the sugar group also had more cortisol in their saliva (which is a normal way to measure cortisol).
This is more than just an interesting tidbit: it helps explain how sugar feeds the cycle of overeating. Sugar stimulates the production of insulin, which is a hormone responsible for storing energy in fat and muscle. If we get stressed and eat sugar to calm down, we produce more insulin, gain weight, and most worryingly, continue relying on sugar to blunt the stress in our lives instead of removing the actual source of the stress. Researchers write, “If the source of stress is not removed, continued self-medication in this fashion might lead to central obesity.”
Not that we’re turning in our Three Musketeers stash anytime soon. But, for the sake of our waistlines, we’re also going to beat stress by reaching for a book, trying some mindfulness meditation, or getting more sleep.