Previous research has shown that when people feel pressures at work or experience other life stressors, they have a tendency to snack more, and the foods they choose are often high in fat and calories.
Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have recently uncovered one of the mechanisms behind this response to stress: the gut hormone ghrelin.
In a study of mice, scientists showed that stressed-out rodents that were genetically modified to block the production of ghrelin had no cravings for fatty foods, when compared to normal mice.
“Our findings show that ghrelin signaling is crucial to this particular behavior and that the increase in ghrelin which occurs as a result of chronic stress is probably behind these food-reward behaviors,” said study author Jeffrey Zigman, M.D.
The researchers also found that the hormone has an anti-depressant effect, which, combined with its tendency to induce cravings, may have been a useful survival advantage in early human history. However, they added that the benefits of ghrelin make it difficult to target in potential therapies to treat or prevent obesity.