Donuts, ice cream, mashed potatoes, cheese cake. The reason they’re called COMFORT FOODS may really be all in your brain, according to researchers at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Calgary (Canada).
Turns out that under stress the food drive in rats is increased and this insight, published in the August 11 online edition of the journal Neuron, could provide important insight into how and why stress contributes to obesity.
Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters – chemicals responsible for communication among cells in the brain – and they send signals to control appetite. The Canadian researchers found that when food is not present rats experience a stress respons that temporarily causes a functional rewiring in the brain and may impair the endocannabinoids’ ability to regular food intake and could contribute to an enhanced desire or craving for food. When the researchers blocked the effects of stress hormones in the brain, the absence of food caused no change in the neural circuitry.
The Canadian researchers – Jaideep Bains, Quentin Pittman, Kareen M. Crosby, and Watauru Inoue – studied neurons (nerve calls) in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain known to play an important role in the control of appetite and metabolism, which has also been identified as the primary region responsible for the brain’s response to stress.
Their findings, explained Bains, “could help explain how the cellular communication in our brains may be overridden in the absence of food. Increasingly, these changes are driven not necessarily by the lack of nutrients, but rather by the stress induced by the lack of food.”
Pittman noted that “If we elect to pass over a meal, the brain appears to simply increase the drive in pathways leading to appetite. Furthermore, the fact that the lack of food causes activation of the stress response might help explain the relationship between stress and obesity.
“One thing we can say for sure, is that this research highlights the importance of food availability to our nervous system. The absence of food clearly brings about dramatic changes in the way our neurons communicate with each other,” said Pittman.
“While this study employed rats, it is possible that it will also lead to insights into the relationship between stress and food cravings in humans,” noted Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy.D., founder and director of clinical services of the Brain Training Centers of Florida.
“By using a combination of individualized neurobiofeedback and Cognitive Behavioral counseling, we’ve assisted more than a dozen clients achieve quiet and balanced brains and, in turn, reverse histories of repeated failures at weight loss or weight control,” said Flynn. “It would, however, be foolish to expect a kind of shortcuts to weight loss and long-term health. In addition to addressing neural – brain – issues, we must assist clients in accomplishing healthy eating and exercise programs, as well as appropriate life style changes.”
Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy. D.