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Using Sugar to Quiet Stress Fuels More Cravings

May 8, 2015

Studies find sugar limits production of cortisol in the brain, prompting dietary habit…

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Sugar overconsumption and chronic stress are growing health concerns because they both may increase the risk for obesity and its related diseases. Rodent studies suggest that sugar consumption may activate a glucocorticoid-metabolic-brain-negative feedback pathway, which may turn off the stress response and thereby reinforce habitual sugar overconsumption.


Researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested this hypothesized glucocorticoid-metabolic-brain model in women consuming beverages sweetened with either aspartame of sucrose. 

The parallel-arm, double-masked diet intervention study, used data from 19 women (age range 18–40 y) with a body mass index (range 20–34 kg/m2) who were a subgroup from a National Institutes of Health-funded investigation of 188 participants assigned to eight experimental groups.

The intervention consisted of sucrose- or aspartame-sweetened beverage consumption three times per day for 2 weeks. Salivary cortisol and regional brain responses to the Montreal Imaging Stress Task were measured.

Compared with aspartame, sucrose consumption was associated with significantly higher activity in the left hippocampus (P = .001). Sucrose, but not aspartame, consumption associated with reduced (P = .024) stress-induced cortisol. The sucrose group also had a lower reactivity to naltrexone, significantly (P = .041) lower nausea, and a trend (P = .080) toward lower cortisol.

The researchers concluded that, "These experimental findings support a metabolic-brain-negative feedback pathway that is affected by sugar and may make some people under stress more hooked on sugar and possibly more vulnerable to obesity and its related conditions."


Practice Pearls:

  • Sugar may interrupt the normal response to stress in the hippocampus, limiting production of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Cravings peak over 15 to 20 minutes and if delayed and distract yourself for that long the cravings start to come down on their own.
  • The study is small and only included women. More research is needed to understand how sugar consumption might impact feelings of stress.

Matthew S. Tryon. Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. DOI: J Clin Endocrinol Metab April 2015.