MENTAL HEALTH

Cortisol responsiveness could alter stress-induced snacking behaviors

Cortisol responsiveness and eating styles play a key role in the relationship between daily stress and eating behavior, according to new research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology. The findings suggest that people’s physiological responses to stress may influence their food choices and habits.

“It is known that many people eat more unhealthy foods when they experience stress and this can be detrimental to their health in the long run,” said study author Daryl O’Connor, a professor at the University of Leeds and head of the Laboratory for Stress and Health Research.

“However, less is known about the complex relationship between stress and nutrition in adolescents and young adults. Therefore, in this study we wanted to investigate the types of stressors associated with unhealthy snacking and explore the role of the key stress hormone cortisol in understanding who might be more vulnerable to stress-induced eating.

The study included a total of 123 participants, recruited from local colleges and universities. Of these, 59 participants were adolescents (aged 16 to 18) and 64 participants were young adults.

Participants completed a modified version of the Trier Social Stress Test. Participants were tested in groups and asked to prepare a speech to convince a group of experts why they are the best candidates for a hypothetical job. They were also given a serial subtraction task. These tasks were designed to induce a subjective, neuroendocrine stress response.

Saliva samples were collected from the participants at four different time points before and after the stress task to measure cortisol levels. Samples were frozen to preserve stability, and cortisol levels were determined using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay kit.

The samples were used to assess cortisol responsiveness, which refers to how the hormone responds to stress or challenging situations. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress and plays a role in regulating metabolism, immune function and other processes.

Next, participants completed a baseline questionnaire that included demographic information and eating styles measured using the Dutch Eating Behaviors Questionnaire (DEBQ). The questionnaire was used to assess restricted, emotional, and external eating behaviors.

Participants were then asked to complete online daily diaries for 14 consecutive days following test day. They recorded the daily stressors they experienced and the between-meal snacks they consumed. The researchers collected 1,196 individual journal entries.

Participants reported experiencing an average of 1.63 stressors per day, with work/academic stressors being the most common, followed by physical stressors. The researchers found that daily reported stress was positively associated with daily snacking, but not fruit and vegetable intake.

“Daily stressors are associated with greater unhealthy eating in adolescents and young adults. Therefore, it’s important to be aware that small daily stressors, as well as larger stressors, can trigger eating high in fatty foods,” O’Connor told PsyPost.

Emotional and external eating styles both influenced the relationship between reported daily stress and total snack intake. Emotional eating intensified the impact of stress on snacking, with higher levels of emotional eating corresponding to a stronger relationship between stress and snacking. A similar pattern was observed for external eating style.

“Adolescents and young adults who are higher in the eating style traits known as emotional eating (i.e., having a tendency to eat more when anxious and upset) and external eating (i.e., having a tendency to eat in response to external triggers such as smelling and seeing visual cues) are more likely to eat unhealthy foods on days when they experience daily stressors,” O’Connor explained.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that stress was associated with increased snacking intake among individuals with low and moderate levels of cortisol responsiveness, but this association was not seen in individuals with high levels of cortisol responsiveness. cortisol.

Those with high levels of cortisol responsiveness ate a similar number of snacks on both low- and high-stress days. This suggests that in people who have a strong stress response, any stressor, regardless of its severity, can affect their eating habits.

“Individual differences in the amount of cortisol release in response to stressors (in the laboratory) have been associated with stress-induced eating,” O’Connor told PsyPost.

The researchers recommend exploring other aspects of the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is involved in the body’s stress response, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the physiological mechanisms underlying stress-related eating.

“Future research should continue to investigate associations of eating stress in adolescents and young adults and see if these effects carry over into adulthood and explore the implications for overweight and obesity in the future,” O’Connor said. . “We should also explore the effects of different aspects of our cortisol profiles (for example, the levels of cortisol we release when we wake up in the morning and throughout the day, not just in response to stress) and see if they’re also related to stress.” related food vulnerability.

The study, “Daily Stress and Eating Behaviors in Adolescents and Young Adults: Investigating the Role of Cortisol Responsiveness and Eating Styles,” was written by Deborah Hill, Mark Conner, Matt Bristow, and Daryl B. O’Connor.

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