Magazine article Science News

Comfort Food Calms, with Weighty Effect

Magazine article Science News

Comfort Food Calms, with Weighty Effect

Article excerpt

The sweet and fatty foods that people often turn to in times of stress might in fact relieve anxiety. That's the good news in an innovative biological theory of people's responses to stress. The bad news is that for those with chronic stress, extra servings of comfort food come with potentially dangerous baggage--extra fat around the abdomen.

Chronic stress, such as financial worries, is less well understood than are intermittent bouts of acute stress. For example, scientists know that when a cat is suddenly attacked by a dog or a person prepares to give a speech, the adrenal gland pumps up production of stress hormones, including those known as glucocorticoids. When present at high-enough concentrations, glucocorticoids provide feedback to the stress-response system, eventually shutting it down.

However, it's unclear how the stress response is controlled in animals that are anxious for days at a time. In an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, physiologist Mary F. Dallman of the University of California, San Francisco and her colleagues aim to close that knowledge gap.

Drawing on their rat studies and experiments done by others, the scientists propose that glucocorticoids work differently in the long term than they do in the short term. When chronically present in the brain and body, the hormones maintain the stress response instead of shutting it down. At the same time, they drive animals to seek out pleasurable foods and direct the added calories to accumulate as abdominal fat.

However, there is a brake on the process, at least in animal experiments. That extra fat eventually checks the glucocorticoids' alarmist effects and tells the brain to take it easy again.

Results from several experiments with rats support this view, the scientists say. In one of them, Dallman and her colleagues simulated chronic stress by increasing the brain concentration of a rodent version of the glucocorticoid called cortisol. …

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