Reaching for sweet snacks to cope with stress might be less of a bad habit and more of a biological response, a new study says. Researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA have discovered stress-triggered hormones in taste buds that are responsible for detecting sweet flavors. Published in journal Neuroscience Letters on June 13, 2014, this study could explain why we crave certain tastes over others when experiencing anxiety.

Researchers noted that GC (glucocorticoid) receptors have an influence on our food preferences. With this in mind, they sought out two objectives: whether GC receptors are present on taste buds that specialize in sweet flavors, and whether or not stress triggers these receptors.

The Study

To determine their findings, researchers compared the number of taste cells proportional to the amount of GC receptors in both stressed and non-stressed mice. Compared to non-stressed mice, they found that stressed mice had a 77% increase of GC receptors in taste cells. While taste perception and intake is already known to be affected by stress, their observations suggest that this influence is directly related to an increase of activated GC receptors caused by anxious feelings.

"Sweet taste may be particularly affected by stress," explained M. Rockwell Parker, PhD, lead author of the study and chemical ecologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center. "Our results may provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people eat more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress."

A Stressed Out Sweet Tooth

So why does stress cause us to reach for the dessert table instead of a bag of chips? According to Parker, although stress regularly increases our intake of salty foods, savory and bitter taste cells were not found to host GC receptors in the same way their sweet counterparts do. He noted that one reason for this may be that the effect of stress on salty intake might process in the brain, instead of through taste bud receptors.

How Anxiety Affects Taste in Other Parts of the Body

"Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients and affecting appetite," said Robert Margolskee, M.D., Ph.D., senior author and molecular biologist at Monell. While this particular study did not observe other parts of the body, its results point to the influence of stress in places beyond the oral taste system.

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M. Rockwell Parker, Dianna Feng, Brianna Chamuris, Robert F. Margolskee. Expression and nuclear translocation of glucocorticoid receptors in type 2 taste receptor cells. Neuroscience Letters, 2014; 571: 72 DOI:10.1016/j.neulet.2014.04.047

Date of original publication:

Updated: November 10, 2015