When stress talks louder than the stomach
Most people crave sweet or salty foods like cookies, chocolates, or potato chips when under stress, and research offers us an understanding of why. Scientists have discovered receptor sites on taste buds that respond to the hormones cortisol, cortisone and corticosterone, altering our taste perception when we’re stressed. These hormones are released from the adrenal glands in response to stress and influence the way we metabolize glucose (sugar) from the diet and from the glucose stores in the body.
Our tongues have different types of taste buds that distinguish the five predominant flavors in the food that we eat; these correspond to salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savory, sometimes called “unami” after the Japanese for “delicious”.
The study revealed how the taste bud cells responsible for bitter, salty, and sweet tastes have binding sites for the adrenal stress hormones and are activated when we are facing stressful situations.
Receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients affecting appetite.
Commenting on the results, senior study author Robert Margolskee stated how the findings may have implications for cells in other parts of the body that are also influenced by stress hormones: “Receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients affecting appetite.”
Taste receptors and health
It may seem odd to think of taste receptors as existing anywhere other than on the tongue, but recent research has uncovered “taste” receptors in other parts of the digestive tract as well as in the brain. In the gut, these chemosensory cells can sense basic tastes and quite literally taste the contents of the gut and transmit signals that regulate nutrient absorption and release of gut hormones and neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of energy and glucose homeostasis. In fact, taste receptors in the gut have an emerging role in both health and disease, and may help resolve a number of pathological conditions like diabetes, obesity, and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
In the pancreas, taste receptors sense sweet flavors and, once activated, lead to secretion of insulin from the pancreatic beta cells. Studies suggest that pancreatic taste receptors are also affected by adrenal stress hormones, indicating an important link in the relationships between taste, palatability, and hedonic responses to food.
But what if there’s something we can do to manage our cravings for sweets and the impact those cravings have on glucose homeostasis and insulin signaling? What if we could lower our risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome? The good news is: we can.
By tackling the root cause of why we are stressed and incorporating stress management techniques into our everyday lives, we improve our chances not only of enjoying life more fully, but also of protecting our health in the both the short and long-term.
Nutrition for a calmer life
We now understand that during stressful times cravings for salty, bitter and/or sweet tastes can take over and direct our choices towards unhealthy foods. These foods in turn negatively affect blood sugar and insulin levels and also deplete our nutrient status by reducing the gut’s absorption of nutrients.
Poor eating habits and unhealthy food choices not only leave the body without essential nutrients, but also amplify the stress response, place burden on digestion, compromise energy production, and disrupt other homeostatic systems. While we may know that junk foods are contributing to this vicious stress cycle, it can be difficult to stop.
The more sugar we eat, the more sugar we crave.
The more sugar we eat, the more sugar we crave. Eating healthier foods, however, balance out the insulin response and in turn ease sugar and carb cravings. Healthy choices include:
- Complex carbohydrates like sweet potato, oats, quinoa, brown rice
- Proteins like eggs, beans, lentils, fish, chicken
- Beneficial fats like oily fish, eggs, avocado, organic flaxseed oil, organic coconut oil
Whole fruits (not processed juices or canned fruits) and vegetables also provide many essential nutrients, including the magnesium and calcium important for easing the symptoms of anxiety and fatigue. Ensuring adequate hydration is equally important, as dehydration can put our bodies under more stress. This means drinking around 1.5-2 liters of hydrating fluids like water, herbal teas, and coconut water daily.
Supplements for a calmer life
Supplementing the diet may also help change dietary habits for the better. By supporting our adrenal glands through stressful times, we can help our bodies and brains naturally make better food choices.
Supportive supplements include:
- B vitamins are required in higher quantities by the adrenals and stressed cells. Calcium pantothenate or pantothenic acid (also known as Vitamin B5) is particularly recommended at times of stress and adrenal fatigue and may be supplemented at higher levels alongside a multi B vitamin complex.
- Vitamin C works alongside Vitamin B5 in production of adrenal hormones, as well as many other important areas of health. A mixed ascorbate form is less acidic so is gentler on the digestive tract, an important point if stress is playing havoc with digestion!
- Magnesium (as organic citrate) helps in many areas of health including sleep, relaxation and production of cell energy (ATP).
- Digestive enzymes can help facilitate digestion and increase nutrient absorption, which is often compromised by stress.
Actions for a calmer life
It’s not just diet that can help manage stress and improve blood sugar balance. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help the stress response and decrease the stress load mentally, emotionally, and physically. Helpful lifestyle stress management techniques include:
- Only tackle the necessary. Take a look at your to-do list and only take action over the essential commitments. Either stop unnecessary commitments or reschedule them for a time when you are under less pressure.
- Have recess. Create 20minutes of ‘you’ time each day – this needs to be free (uncommitted) time every day where you can do something relaxing and that you enjoy.
- Sleep. Prioritize sleep and create a consistent routine, with an ideal bedtime of around 10:30pm and a wake time of around 7am. Spend the last hour before bedtime relaxing by taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or listening to relaxing music. (Not by looking at your phone, tablet, or other glowing screen.)
- Laugh. Laugh as much as possible. Make it a point to laugh every day by reading humorous books, movies or stories, watching funny YouTube clips – anything that makes you laugh. Laughter activates the calming (parasympathetic) part of the nervous system so automatically induces relaxation.
Whatever your approach or combination of calming habits, it’s critical to manage stress for both short and long-term health. So now you that understand one origin of food cravings, do something relaxing right now to break that vicious cycle.
Click here to see References
 Parker R, et al. Expression and nuclear translocation of glucocorticoid receptors in type 2 taste receptor cells. Neurosci Ltrs. 2014;571:72-7.  Depoortere. Taste receptors of the gut: emerging roles in health and disease. Gut. 2014;63(1):179-90.  Egan, et al. The endocrinology of taste receptors. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2015;11(4):213-27.  Rippe. Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: current understanding. Nutrients. 2016;8(11):697.  Boyle. The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress – a systematic review. Nutrients. 2017;9(5):429.  Wilson. Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. 2014;1:93-6.
 Parker R, et al. Expression and nuclear translocation of glucocorticoid receptors in type 2 taste receptor cells. Neurosci Ltrs. 2014;571:72-7.
 Depoortere. Taste receptors of the gut: emerging roles in health and disease. Gut. 2014;63(1):179-90.
 Egan, et al. The endocrinology of taste receptors. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2015;11(4):213-27.
 Rippe. Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: current understanding. Nutrients. 2016;8(11):697.
 Boyle. The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress – a systematic review. Nutrients. 2017;9(5):429.
 Wilson. Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. 2014;1:93-6.