Food, sex and other pleasurable activities can reduce stress by inhibiting anxiety producing pathways in the brain. Researchers from University of Cincinnati say new studies provide a clearer understanding of why consuming “comfort food” is appealing during times of stress.
Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, PhD, research assistant professor, James Herman, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Stress Neurobiology and professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at UC, and colleagues conducted studies on rats, observing their response to the pleasures of tasty sweets and sex.
Pleasure Lowers Stress Hormones and Heart Rate
For the study, researchers gave the rodents a sugar solution twice a day for two weeks and then gauged their reaction to stress, physiologically and behaviorally. The rats given the solution had lower stress hormones and heart rates when they were restrained in ventilated tube, compared to the control group. Stress responses were lower in response to saccharin and from exposure to sexually responsive partners.
When the researchers gave sucrose directly into the stomach, the rats did not have the same response, showing the”pleasurable properties of tasty foods, not the caloric properties were sufficient for stress reduction,” says Ulrich-Lai.
The scientists also found when they blocked signals to an area of a brain structure that regulates stress the rats did not experience reduced anxiety. The rats exposed to pleasurable food and sex had a lower stress response.
“Our research identifies key neural circuits underlying the comfort food effect,” notes Ulrich-Lai. “Further research is needed, but identification of these circuits could provide potential strategies for intervening to prevent or curtail increasing rates of obesity and other metabolic disorders.” Food, sex and other pleasurable activities actually work to inhibit stress pathways in the brain that the scientists also say can last up to 7 days.