What links comfort food, stress and your brain?

woman stress eating junk food

Comfort food – now, there’s a topic close to my heart. Or should I say my stomach? Perhaps both, because at times of stress there’s nothing I love more than a treat to ease the anxiety.

Fortunately, I know I’m not alone in seeking the solitude of sweets when life’s burdens become too heavy. Who among us hasn’t succumbed to the temptation of junk food of some description after a stressful day?

Of course, if such a surrender is only occasional, it’s hardly likely to be a problem. Most of us can cope with an occasional lapse with little or no negative side-effects. It’s when it becomes a regular occurrence, even a habit, that it can cause issues.

The obvious one is weight gain, but the risk of stomach and gut disruptions will also rise. And if comfort food begins to replace regular healthy meals, there’s a strong chance your nutritional requirements aren’t being met.

Why do we seek comfort food?

This is a question for science, and one for which a group of Sydney researchers is attempting to find an answer. From an evolutionary perspective, the idea of quickly loading up on food when under stress makes sense.

For wild animals – and early humans – a common cause of stress would be danger, often from predators. A successful reaction to that stress (like running away) requires energy. That means food!

But what are the brain mechanisms that drive this process? That’s what scientists from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney wanted to know.

To find out, they did what good scientists do – devised and conducted a study. The study, published in the journal Neuron, found a part of the brain that switches off when we’re stressed.

The researchers found the lateral habenula remained uncharacteristically silent as high fat foods were being eaten. What is the lateral habenula? Excellent question.

The lateral habenula (LHb) can be found in a part of the brain known as the thalamus. The thalamus serves as the main relay station for your brain, and the LHb learns from aversive (undesired) experiences. One such undesired experience is overeating.

When the brain is under stress, though, the LHb takes a back seat.  When we hear the siren and the see flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, we get out of the way. The LHb does more or less the same thing, at least under normal conditions.

It produces a mild, unpleasant sensation in the short-term presence of a fatty diet. This switches off the brain’s reward response, thus making further eating less pleasurable.

Many comfort foods are, of course, high in fat. On the other hand others are high in sugar. The study found that under stress, the LHb did not react to high sugar intake either.

What can we learn from this?

The first thing to note is that this study used chronically stressed mice, not humans, as its subject. The results of many mice studies can’t be replicated in humans, but some can. In this case, the study’s lead author, Dr Chi Kin Ip, believes it will be.

“The anatomical structure, as well as the function of the habenula, is highly conserved across all species, including humans,” he said.

While the study does not suggest ways to overcome the problems that a dormant LHb can create, others have. Professor Janet Tomiyama from UCLA’s Department of Psychology is one.

Prof. Tomiyama pointed out that comfort foods don’t necessarily have to be high in sugar or fat to be comforting. “We … have a study where we trained people to feel better after eating fruit,” she said.

If, like me, you are prone to turning to comfort food when under stress, at least now you know why. It might be only an occasional thing for you, in which case you probably need not worry.

If it’s regular, training yourself to consider fruit as a comfort food would be a good idea.

That, however – and I say this from experience – is easier said than done.

Do you turn to comfort food when under stress? Is your comfort food high in sugar or fat? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Three ways to bust through stress and anxiety

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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