Sweet Tooth Might Reduce Stress

/ by Adnaan Wasey /

Researchers look to sugar and saccharin to lessen anxiety.

Stressed out? Forget exercise. Candy could be your chill pill.

A group of researchers at the University of Cincinnati think sweet foods could alleviate the most common kinds of stress.

A study led by Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, a post-doctoral student, showed that sucrose (aka sugar) decreased levels of anxiety-producing hormones when rats were subjected to physiological or psychological stress.

The investigators fed a group of rats small amounts of sucrose-rich water for two weeks before presenting them with an arduous physical or mental task. Blood samples taken shortly after the challenge showed that the rats with a sugar fix weren’t as anxious as those that drank plain water.

The reason: They had decreased levels of glucocorticoids, the hormones involved in the regulation of the stress in both rats and humans. High levels of glucocorticoids, like cortisol, lead to high levels of stress. The mice with the sweet tooth had lower levels of the hormones, indicating that they weren’t as stressed-out as their pure water-drinking peers.

In a second experiment, another group of rats received water with the potent artificial sweetener saccharin. Jim Herman, Ulrich-Lai’s supervisor and a coauthor of the study, said this step acted as a sort of experimental control.

“Is it the reward aspect of the sweet foods or is it the calories?” said Herman. “Sucrose has calories whereas saccharin does not.” The researchers discovered that the production of stress hormone decreased in the no-cal group, but not to the extent that was seen when the rats drank sugar-water.

The rats also showed a preference for the sweeter drinks. But then again, who doesn’t? The finding is consistent with other recent work that indicates that stress-reducing effects may not be limited to sugar and saccharin, but to a wider variety of foods that we enjoy eating.

“If you talk to a lot of people—if they’re under stress—they’ll tell you that they like to eat comfort food,” said Ulrich-Lai. “We wanted to see if there was an effect on the physiology.”

At the Society for Neuroscience’s 2005 conference, where the study was presented, the researchers suggested that patients experiencing chronic stress from psychological disorders could consume small amounts of sugar or saccharin to possibly relieve their medical symptoms. 

But don’t start bingeing on sugar-rich foods just yet. Ulrich-Lai cautions that the rats’ diet was balanced to account for the added sugar, which was less than one-tenth of their total caloric intake.

“Moderated, limited intake of palatable food can give the positive effect without the weight gain,” said Ulrich-Lai. “The key to it…is moderation.”

Originally published November 18, 2005

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