Sugar high or sugar low? How sugar influences the stress response

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Davis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service brings up an interesting finding that might help explain why it is so hard to break the soda habit; drinking sugar sweetened beverages can suppress cortisol and the stress response in the brain.

The effects of soda on stress was found only in sugary drinks, and not in diet beverages sweetened with aspartame, adding to previous evidence that indicates that sugar may help relieve stress in humans.

On every given day, about half of the U.S. population will consume one or more sugary drinks, the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention says. Since we know sugar overconsumption can have a detrimental effect on health it is important to understand more about people’s soda habits, and why they seem to be so hard to break. “The concern is that psychological or emotional stress could trigger the habitual overconsumption of sugar,” said Kevin D. Laugero, one of the study’s authors.

In the study, 19 women were randomly assigned to drink either regular soda or aspartame-sweetened soda three times a day for twelve days. Prior to and after the 12-day intervention period, the participants performed a math test that was supposed to trigger their stress response. The women’s cortisol responses were measured and their brains were scanned using fMRI.

After the intervention, the women who had been drinking regular soda showed diminished cortisol response compared to the women who had been drinking aspartame-sweetened soda. There were also differences in brain activity between the two groups, with the women in the experimental condition showing more activity in the hippocampus than the women in the control condition. The hippocampus is an area of the brain involved in memory, and is typically known to be less active when the body is under stress.

These findings offer new clues that help explain how sugar positively reinforces comfort eating when a person is stressed, Laugero said. “The results suggest differences in dietary habits may explain why some people underreact to stressful situations and others overreact”.

A lower stress response probably sounds like a good thing to many, but it is important not to go too far in either direction. A normal reaction to stress is vital for good health, and both over- and under-reactivity in neural and endocrine stress systems have been linked to poor mental and physical health.

If you want to know more about how sugar influences the stress response, check out the full article here!