Researchers explain why we want to reach for a treat when we're stressed out (and, more importantly, why we shouldn't!)
Pop quiz: It's 4:45 p.m. and your boss just dropped a new assignment in your lap, which means you'll miss your favorite spin class (again) and your phone keeps reminding you that you have a voice mail to listen to...from your mom. Do you a) meditate, b) vent to a friend, or c) reach for the chocolates in your bottom drawer? If you're like most of us, you're headed straight for the sweet stuff. (The exceptions? 10 Ways Busy People Go Strong All Day Long.) And now we know why—a new study found that eating sugar actually helps control your stress response.
It turns out that the feeling of relief you get after downing a tall caramel latte is all in your head—literally. The research, just published in Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, found that when women drank a beverage sweetened with straight-up sugar, rather than sweetened with aspartame or not sweetened at all, their brains showed a decrease in stress, their cortisol levels were lower, and they reported feeling less stressed.
"This is the first evidence that high sugar—but not aspartame—consumption may relieve stress in humans," said lead author Kevin D. Laugero, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California, Davis. When you're stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Sweet treats inhibit this cortisol stress response by altering how the hippocampus—the part of your brain that controls how you respond to stress—deals with tough stuff, Laugero explains.
But just because your "chocolate therapy" really works doesn't mean it's the best solution to everyday stress. Laugero points out that this brain mechanism can cause eating sugar to become a vicious cycle: We pound sweets because we're stressed and then we're stressed because we overate sweets. Not only is the effect short-lived (hello, sugar crash!) but eating a lot of treats has consequences of its own, so now you have extra weight to worry about and your work is still piling up. (In fact, the WHO Says to Cut Sugar to 5 Percent of Daily Calories.)
So while it may be tempting to reach for a soda the next time you get a "we need to talk..." text, try one of our favorite consequence-free stress relievers first: Take a quick walk, since exercise is one of the most powerful stress relievers we have. (Or try one of 15 Easy Ways to Beat Everyday Anxiety.) If you can't leave your desk, opt for healthier high-sugar foods, like fruit, to capitalize on both the sweet stress-relieving properties and the vitamins and fiber that won't leaving you stressing over your snack later. (Sugar Wise: How Fruit Stacks Up.)