Why We Crave
Reaching for the candies at work when things get hectic? Stress at home have you going for the Ben & Jerry’s? Researchers may have discovered why you reach for the sweets when you’re feeling stressed.
“Sweet taste may be particularly affected by stress,” said lead author M. Rockwell Parker, PhD, a chemical ecologist at Monel Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA. “Our results may provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people eat more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress.”
The Study on Taste
The study suggests that hormones, known as glucocorticoids (GC), may act directly on taste receptor cells under conditions of stress to affect how these cells respond to sugars and certain other taste stimuli. The findings, published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, revealed that GC receptors are present on the tongue, where they are specifically localized to the cells that contain receptors for sweet, umami and bitter taste. The highest concentrations of GC receptors were found in taste cells, which are sensitive to sweet and umami taste.
Do you know what umami taste is? I had no clue so I looked it up on merriam-webster.com which defines it as “a taste sensation that is meaty or savory and is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides”. Apparently, it’s a subtle taste that may require practice to isolate.
To explore whether GC receptors in taste tissue are activated by stress, the researchers compared the proportion of taste cells with receptors in stressed and non-stressed mice. Compared to controls, the stressed mice had a 77 percent increase of GC receptors within taste cell nuclei. How do you stress out a mouse?. Pictures of cats, perhaps?
The results suggest that sweet taste perception and intake, which are known to be altered by stress, may be specifically affected via secretion of GCs and subsequent activation of GC receptors in taste cells.
“Taste provides one of our initial evaluations of potential foods. If this sense can be directly affected by stress-related hormonal changes, our food interaction will likewise be altered,” said Parker.
Implications of the findings extend beyond the oral taste system. Noting that taste receptors are found throughout the body, senior author and Monell molecular neurobiologist Robert Margolskee, MD, PhD, said, “Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients and affecting appetite.” Since there are taste receptors that far down, it may explain why chewing gum or sucking on candy may not help to curb that sweet craving as much as we’d like.
Future studies will continue to explore how stress hormones act to affect the taste system, which means that, for now, you’re still on your own to refrain from digging for the chocolates. Of course, I think, we all hope additional research could eventually result in a scientific method of curbing those nasty sweet cravings.
Source: Monell Chemical Senses Center