It’s no secret that when people are under stress, binging on lip-smacking high-calorie food items, provide them a kind of comfort that nothing else can.
While high-calorie food is generally known to be detrimental to health, according to recent findings, it is especially important to keep this indulgence in check when one is under stress, a recent study suggests.
As part of the study, a team of researchers discovered, in an animal model, that a high-calorie diet, when combined with stress, resulted in more weight gain than the same diet caused in a stress-free environment. They revealed a molecular pathway in the brain, controlled by insulin, which drives the additional weight gain.
“This study indicates that we have to be much more conscious about what we’re eating when we’re stressed, to avoid a faster development of obesity,” said Herbert Herzog, lead researcher of the study published in the Journal of Cell Metabolism
According to the study, while some individuals eat less when they’re stressed, most increase their food intake – and crucially, the intake of calorie-dense food high in sugar and fat
To understand what controls this ‘stress eating’, the researchers investigated different areas of the brain in mice. While food intake is mainly controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, another part of the brain – the amygdala – processes emotional responses, including anxiety.
“Our study showed that when stressed over an extended period and high-calorie food was available, mice became obese more quickly than those that consumed the same high-fat food in a stress-free environment,” explains Kenny Chi Kin Ip, lead author of the study.
At the center of this weight gain, the scientists discovered was a molecule called NPY, which the brain produces naturally in response to stress to stimulate eating in humans as well as mice.
“We discovered that when we switched off the production of NPY in the amygdala weight gain was reduced. Without NPY, the weight gain on a high-fat diet with stress was the same as weight gain in the stress-free environment. This shows a clear link between stress, obesity, and NPY,” said Ip.
To understand what might control the NPY boost under stress, the scientists analysed the nerve cells that produced NPY in the amygdala and found they had receptors, or ‘docking stations’, for insulin – one of the hormones which control our food intake.
Under normal conditions, the body produces insulin just after a meal, which helps cells absorb glucose from the blood and sends a ‘stop eating’ signal to the hypothalamus feeding center of the brain.
In the study, the scientists discovered that chronic stress alone raised the blood insulin levels only slightly, but in combination with a high-calorie diet, the insulin levels were 10 times higher than mice that were stress-free and received a normal diet.
The study showed that these prolonged, high levels of insulin in the amygdala caused the nerve cells to become desensitised to insulin, which stopped them from detecting insulin altogether. In turn, these desensitised nerve cells boosted their NPY levels, which both promoted eating and reduced the bodies’ normal response to burn energy through heat, the study showed.
“Our findings revealed a vicious cycle, where chronic, high insulin levels are driven by stress and a high-calorie diet promoted more and more eating. This really reinforced the idea that while it’s bad to eat junk food, eating high-calorie foods under stress is a double whammy that drives obesity,” Herzog asserted.
While insulin imbalance is at the center of a number of diseases, the study indicates that insulin has more wide-spread effects in the brain than previously thought.