Eating fatty and sugary food in response to stress may in the long run dampen the body’s stress response, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco suggest. In a study of 59 premenopausal women published last month in Psychoneuroendocrinology, they found that those who suffered from chronic stress not only reported greater emotional eating and had significantly more abdominal fat, but also had lower levels of diurnal cortisol, the hormone that drives the stress response.
“It is very likely that comfort food intake is a double-edged sword—leading not only to a dampened-down stress response system, but also to greater levels of risky abdominal fat, ” coauthor and UCSF psychologist Elissa Epel, said in a UCSF news story.
The finding supports the team’s earlier work with rodents, which found that chronic stress leads to abdominal obesity through the secretion of chronic glucocorticoid hormones, such as cortisol, which initially leads to stronger cravings for fat and sugar. But as the abdominal fat builds up, cortisol secretion drops in response to stress. “The rats appeared to be self-medicating,” Epel told UCSF news. “Their stress eating in turn dampened their HPA-axis activity”—the pathway that leads from the hypothalamus to the pituitary to the adrenal gland and modulates the stress response.