Sweets for Stress
January 12, 2006
by Lindsay Carswell, Sciencentral.com

Ever find yourself reaching for the candy drawer when things get hectic? Now scientists say our instincts might be right. Sweets may be a natural stress reducer. This ScienCentral News video has more.

Sweet News
For some people sweets offer a treat or a little pick-me-up.

"It boosts my mood, makes me a little happier and then I can get through my day," says Leanne Mercadante a student in New York. "I feel happy, a little more relaxed."

For others it's more of an obsession.

"It's just comfortable, just total comfort food," explains Mika De Young, a self-confessed chocoholic. "It makes you happy."

"People that are stressed out, have any kind of anxiety, will definitely look to candy for relief," explains Kris Minkstein who meets many a sweet-lover while working at Dylan's Candy Bar in New York City. "When, a lot of times, a customer's had a long day… they'll pretty much indulge. They'll buy a lot of candy."

To those of us with our hands in the candy jar, here's some sweet news. Scientists have now shown that sugar can calm the nerves, at least in rats.

As reported on ScientificAmerican.com, brain researchers studied rats that were given water sweetened with sucrose — another name for sugar — twice a day for two weeks, as part of their regular nutritionally balanced diet, and compared them to rats that were not.

"We found that if they drink small amounts of sucrose it will reduce the amount of stress hormone produced during stress… relative to the rats that did not have access to sucrose," says stress neurobiologist Yvonne Ulrich-Lai from the University of Cincinnati's department of psychiatry.

During stress, signals are sent to a particular region of the brain that tells the body to release stress hormones, called glucocorticoids, from the adrenal gland. The researchers found that sugar reduces this hormonal response by about 25 percent, which may be why many of us feel more relaxed after eating sweets.

"Glucocorticoids are a type of stress hormone that are produced here in the body as the name implies during stress episodes. And in the short term they can help for survival during stress but excessive levels or levels that are high for too long can have detrimental side effects," Ulrich-Lai says.

These stress hormones help make sure that energy is available to the body during the fight or flight response and they can also help maintain blood pressure levels.

The research team stressed the rats using two different types of stressful stimuli. "One of them we referred to as 'restraint stress.' So, that is analogous to a person being in a well-lit well-ventilated crawl space for a long or short period of time," she explains. "The other stress that we use we term 'hypoxia,' and it's going into an environment with a slightly lower oxygen level, so it's the equivalent to a person being at a high altitude for a short period of time."

However, she says, that at this point they don't know to what extent these results might apply to people. Future work will need to be done to establish that.

Co-author of the study James Herman agrees that it's too soon to rush to the candy store just yet.

"People can, and animals can, essentially use sucrose as an anti-stress mechanism, and whether that is beneficial in the long run or contributes to things like obesity and diabetes and things along those lines, we don't really know," says Herman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati.

In the meantime, a sweet snack on a rough day may not be so bad.

They say that interestingly, artificial sweeteners also reduced stress levels, although not as much as the real thing.