Research indicates that “comfort food intake may reduce stress by acting on the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis.” That proposition alone seems enough to fuel several academic careers. It is one of many ideas brought up in a paper by Elizabeth S. Bast and Elliot M. Berry, titled “Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humor in the Control of Stress-induced Emotional Eating,” which contains several jumping-off points for expanded ways of thinking about such practices as binge-eating.
The work concludes with the suggestion that humor “be investigated as an additional therapy especially among obese people with stress-induced emotional eating problems.” People suffer from irritability, anxiety, stress, depression, mood swings, and a state described as tense tiredness. Any of these conditions might be caused by nutritional factors, and might be alleviated by better nutrition, but are likely to delude a person into pursuing even worse nutrition, in the mistaken belief that a feast of chocolate-covered bacon will help them feel better.
The authors wanted to learn the most effective coping strategies to deal with emotional eating, and what kinds of behavioral modifications might be useful. In the realm of mood regulation, there are two hypotheses, which are not mutually exclusive, but which could very well work together synergistically. As they express it:
The hedonic effects of comfort food may be augmented by subsequent endocrine effects, especially in persons experiencing high levels of stress.
Nutrient-dependent effects result from “the specific quality of the food and possible biochemical effects that may occur due to these qualities.” Hedonic effects stem from the brain’s pleasure-reward circuits, which may be corrupted by too much exposure to hyperpalatable foods loaded with fat and sugar.
Related to nutrient-dependent effects, clues abound, connected with protein, fatty acid, carbohydrates, insulin, hypoglycemia, tryptophan, serotonin, glucocorticoids, and their interactions. There is a lot to sort out and, as always, prudent scientists admit how much research remains to be done:
Without more evidence it is difficult to reach any conclusions except that the relationship between insulin release and the propensity for emotional eating should be studied further.
The term “ego-threatening stressor” applies to an activity that includes the possibility of failing in front of other people, such as public speaking. With an event like this on the horizon, people tend to go for the high-calorie, hyperpalatable foods — which paradoxically are quite likely to affect their performance in a negative way. There may be an additional guilt burden, as the individual engages in self-blame. So the blind, instinctive seeking of comfort can not help but backfire.
Tiny, unsung heroes
These words written by Peter Andrey Smith for The New York Times are worth repeating:
Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and […] among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These, in turn, appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety.
Along with influencing a person’s sense of well-being, serotonin is connected with appetite regulation and food intake. With the help of the gut microbiome, at least 80% of a body’s serotonin is manufactured in the GI tract, and the different kinds of bacterial colonies can be picky about their nutritional demands.
Some gut bacteria increase insulin sensitivity. The real possibility exists that manipulating populations of interior microbes can change people’s lives profoundly. Maybe answers to both diabetes and misery-based obesity can be discovered by listening to and befriending the microbiota.
Source: “Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humor in the Control of Stress-induced Emotional Eating,” RMMJ.org, January 2014
Source: “Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?,” NYTimes.com, 06/23/15
Photo credit: Marc Kjerland via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA