Researchers claim they are closer to understanding why stressed people tend to indulge in chocolate, ice cream, fried foods, and other high-calorie, high-fat comfort foods. The study found that that ghrelin — dubbed the “hunger hormone” — is involved in triggering a reaction to high stress situations.
According to the researchers, this may explain certain complex eating behaviors and could be one of the mechanisms by which obesity develops in people exposed to high-level psychosocial stress. Although the study used mice, the researchers claimed that the findings are not just relevant only to mice, but are also associated with humans.
Scientists know that fasting causes ghrelin to be released from the gastrointestinal tract and that the hormone then plays a role in sending hunger signals to the brain.
Previous research has shown that chronic stress also causes elevated ghrelin levels, and that behaviors associated with depression and anxiety are minimized when ghrelin levels rise. In mice, these stress-induced rises in ghrelin lead to overeating and increased body weight, suggesting a mechanism for the increase in weight-related issues observed in humans with chronic stress and depression.
For this study, the researchers developed a mouse model to determine which hormones and what parts of the brain may play a role in controlling more complex eating behaviors that occur upon stress, particularly those that lead to the indulgence of comfort foods.
They subjected mice to a standard laboratory technique that induces social stress by exposure to more dominant bully mice. Such animals have been shown to be good models for studying depression and the effects of chronic stress and depression in humans.
Mice subjected to the stress gravitated toward a chamber where they had been trained to find pleasurable, fatty food – the mouse equivalent of comfort food. However, genetically engineered mice, which were not able to respond to stress-induced increases in ghrelin, showed no preference toward the fatty food-paired chamber, and when exposed to the fatty food, did not eat as much as the wild-type animals.
The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, show that ghrelin signaling is crucial to this particular behavior and that the increase in ghrelin which occurs as a result of chronic stress is probably behind these food-reward behaviors.
The study also showed that these effects of ghrelin are due to direct interaction with a subset of neurons that use catecholamines as a neurotransmitter. These include dopaminergic neurons in the brain’s ventral tegmental area, which is known to be associated with pleasure and reward behaviors.