Stress and sugar: a dangerous liaison

stress and sugar

Sooner or later in our lives, we all experience this: stress causes people to consume high sugar and high-calorie foods rather than healthy alternatives. This happens because of the way these foods taste as well the way they make you feel when they are metabolized and it is often done as a form of self-medication for the symptoms that come with prolonged stress.

There is a wide range of things that can cause the two types of stress: psychological stress, like being worried about money, grades in school, or family dysfunction or physical stress like breaking an arm or falling ill. Both types of stress cause the same biological reaction in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis (HPA axis).

This reaction starts in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that is in charge of maintaining homeostasis, sends a signal made up of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to the pituitary gland located at the base of the hypothalamus. The CRH tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

Once the ACTH reaches the adrenal glands it causes them to release cortisol into the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and this whole reaction in the HPA axis is a part of the stress response. Many refer to it as “fight or flight” and it was evolutionary advantageous because it prepares your body well to either run away from or confront a predator.

This does not work well and can be very detrimental to individuals’ health over modern stressors like financial or social problems that tend to be problems we worry over for long periods of time but can’t physically fight or run away from. If the HPA axis is over stimulated in a prolonged stress response there are negative effects on bone density, brain function, and more.

Prolonged stress can either increase or decrease the amount people eat. Imminent or physical threats tend to be associated with a decreased appetite and chronic daily stress tends to increase the number of calories consumed.

No matter the change in total daily calories, people who are stressed are more likely to eat high sugar, and calorically dense foods. There is evidence to suggest that consuming more sugar can dull the effects in the HPA axis. One reason is that in controls where some people consume fake sugar, like in diet soda, they don’t report lower stress the same way that people who consume real soda would.

This test shows that it is a property of the sugar and calories, not just the sweet flavour that helps de-stress the person consuming it. There is also evidence that more sugar is correlated to a lower production of CRH, and so all of the steps after the pituitary gland would also be diminished compared to their full reaction. Though unhealthy foods do make people feel better, fell medication through foods is not healthy or productive. It contributes to obesity, digestion, and dietary issues, and consuming unhealthy foods does nothing to remove the original stressor.

The way to a healthier weight is definitely paved with less stress.

For those who want to know more: what is stress?

Stress can be seen or perceived as a liability for the maintenance of homeostasis or general lifestyle of an individual. It can either manifest as a physical or psychological phenomenon. Its distinct effect is noticeable on the ambience or mood of the individual.

How exactly does stress occur?

Once a trigger for stress is encountered, it activates certain regulatory circuits in the brain. These circuits ensure that homeostasis in the body is maintained, there is minimal disruption and survival is maintained. It achieves this by activating the sympathetic nervous System(SNS) or the flight or fights response system in order to re-distribute energy stored in specific points in the body. Other neurons specifically located in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis are activated. They are stimulated to ensure the secretion and distribution of hormones that regulates and distributes stored energy in the body.

These responses are fine-tuned to the peculiar needs of the individual as excessive stimulation or triggers could produce negative consequences.


Source: Self-medication with fructose by Yvonne M. Ulrich-Lai PhD, University of Cincinnati. Curr. Opin. Behav. Sci. 2016; 9: 78-83.

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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