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Why We Emotionally Eat, Explained

Jun 05, 2014 01:33 PM EDT

Researchers may have determined why so many people reach for that bowl of chocolates or tub of ice-cream when they are feeling down.

According to a study recently published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, there are a number of receptors for stress-activated hormones located in sweet-sensing taste buds. When a person is saddened or upset, these hormones - called glucocorticoids (GCs) - are secreted in the body at heightened levels. These prevalent GCs are then received by cells in oral taste buds responsible for detecting sweet and savory tastes, causing a temporary increased sensitivity and preference for these flavors.

"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," lead author M. Rockwell Parker explained in a recent statement.

Parker and his team investigated this stress-food relationship by looking at stressed and non-stressed mice. They sought to determine if GC receptors were specifically triggered by stress.

According to the study, their investigation revealed that stressed mice had a 77 percent higher level of activated GC receptors in their taste cell nuclei, compared to relaxed mice.

This, the researchers concluded, would result in a higher preference for sweet and savory foods among stressed mice, as taste cells called Tas1r3 - the cells responsible for sensing sweet and savory flavors - naturally have more active and inactive GC receptors than other oral taste bud cells.

Interestingly, the researchers suspect that stress may impact more than just flavor preference. According to senior author and molecular neurobiologist Robert Margolskee, taste receptors are not just found in the mouth.

"Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients and affecting appetite," he said.

Future studies will need to be conducted to investigate this potential influence.

The study was published for the June 13 issue of Neuroscience Letters.

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