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Study Explores Tie Between Stress, Craving Sweets

June 12, 2014
by Candy & Snack TODAY

Philadelphia — Assuaging stress by eating sweets isn’t folklore — or an excuse, a study performed at The Monell Chemical Senses Center reports.

In fact, when hormones known as glucocorticoids (GC) are triggered during stressful situations, they act directly on taste receptor cells on the area of the tongue associated with sensations of sweet and umami, according to research published ahead of print in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

“Sweet taste may be particularly affected by stress,” lead author M. Rockwell Parker, PhD, says. “Our results could provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people ate more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress.”

In the study, 97 percent of oral taste cells sensitive to sweet/umami compounds in mice have receptors activated by GC exposure, compared with 89 percent of cells sensitive to sweet/umami/bitter tastes. GCs bind to receptors on the surface of the taste cells, then relocate to the cell nucleus.

Among mice exposed to stress, there was a 77 percent increase in the number of GC receptors present in their oral taste cell nuclei compared with those of non-stressed mice. “Taste provides one of our initial evaluations of potential foods. If this sense can be directly affected by stress-related hormonal changes, our food interaction will likewise be altered,” Parker explains.

Noting taste cells also are present in the intestine and pancreas, senior author Robert Margolskee, MD, PhD, suggests GC receptor stimulation during stress also could affect appetite by their effect on metabolism of sugars and other nutrients.

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