Why You Reach For Treats When You're Stressed

by Sarah Burns
Originally Published: 

You have a bad day, so you reach for some chocolate or a cookie or spoon up some ice cream—something sweet to take the sting and stress away.

And then you feel better. Is it all in your head? Apparently not.

According to a recent study, sugar can slash levels of cortisol, a hormone produced when stress occurs in the body. In the study, scientists recruited 19 female volunteers. For 12 days, eight of them consumed beverages sweetened with aspartame, an artificial sweetener. The rest drank an identical beverage containing 25 percent sucrose, or table sugar.

showed decreased activity in those areas.

Before and after the experiment, researchers measured the volunteers’ saliva cortisol levels and performed functional M.R.I. scans while they took math tests designed to be just beyond their abilities—a procedure known to increase cortisol levels. The result? They found no differences in the tests between the two groups before the 12-day diet. But in tests afterward, cortisol levels were lower in the sugar consumers and higher in the aspartame group. A post-diet M.R.I. also showed increased activity in the areas of the brain controlling fear and stress in the sugar group. The aspartame group

But before you start shoveling in the sugary treats, take note: No one should conclude that sugar should be used as a stress reducer, says study author Kevin Laugero. The fact is, stress reducer or not, regularly forking up sugary fare could still cause you to gain weight and spike your blood sugar, prompting such conditions as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

showed decreased activity in those areas.

“Instead, the finding is intriguing because it suggests that there is a metabolic pathway sensitive to sugar outside the brain that may expose new targets for treating neurobehavioral and stress-related conditions,” Laugero says.

So, take a pause before pulling out that ice cream scooper on a stressful day and consider something non-food related, like a spring walk or a sexy pedicure. Their lasting results won’t stop you from squeezing into your skinny jeans.

This article was originally published on