Why stress is linked to emotional overeating

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Have you ever noticed that after a near-miss car accident or a stressful encounter with a menacing person, you sometimes crave comfort food?

You’re not alone, as many people experience this phenomenon—a strong desire for highly processed, high-fat comfort foods as a response to stress or threats.

This reaction is known as emotional overeating, and scientists have been intrigued by its underlying mechanisms.

A recent study conducted by a scientist at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech, Sora Shin, has shed light on this phenomenon.

Shin and her research team identified a specific molecule in the brain called Proenkephalin that is closely associated with changes in the brain leading to emotional overeating.

Their findings, published in Nature Communications, provide valuable insights into the link between stress, threat responses, and the consumption of comfort food.

The research began with an investigation into the role of the molecule Proenkephalin, which is found in various parts of the brain.

However, little was known about its function in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain responsible for regulating eating behavior. Shin suspected that Proenkephalin played a role in the connection between stress, threat perception, and eating motivation.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed mice to the odor of cat feces—a scent that naturally triggers a threat response in rodents.

Twenty-four hours later, the mice displayed several significant outcomes: a negative emotional state, overeating behavior, and heightened sensitivity in brain neurons to high-fat food consumption.

To confirm the molecule’s role in stress-induced eating, the researchers artificially stimulated the same neurons using light to activate a genetically encoded molecule expressed in the cell’s membrane, without exposing the mice to the predator scent.

This manipulation resulted in a similar response as seen in the previous experiment.

Furthermore, when the researchers exposed mice to the cat odor and suppressed the neurons expressing the Proenkephalin molecule with the same technique, the mice exhibited neither a negative emotional state nor overeating behavior.

This discovery highlights the importance of the Proenkephalin molecule in the induction of overconsumption following stressful situations or threats. It represents a potential target for future therapies aimed at alleviating emotionally triggered eating behaviors.

While there is much more to learn about this molecule and its role in emotional overeating, the study’s findings provide a promising starting point for further research and potential therapeutic interventions.

Understanding the neural pathways and molecules involved in emotional overeating can ultimately help individuals manage their eating behaviors during stressful times and lead to improved overall well-being.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about the best time to take vitamins to prevent heart disease, and vitamin D supplements strongly reduce cancer death.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies about plant nutrient that could help reduce high blood pressure, and these antioxidants could help reduce dementia risk.

The research findings can be found in Nature Communications.

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