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Physiol Behav. 2011 Apr 18;103(1):104-10. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.12.011. Epub 2010 Dec 17.

HPA axis dampening by limited sucrose intake: reward frequency vs. caloric consumption.

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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Cincinnati, 2170 East Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, OH 45237, USA.


Individuals often cope with stress by consuming calorically-dense, highly-palatable 'comfort' foods. The present work explores the stress-relieving properties of palatable foods in a rat model of limited sucrose intake. In this model, adult male rats with free access to chow and water are given additional access to a small amount of sucrose drink (or water as a control). A history of such limited sucrose intake reduces the collective (HPA axis, sympathetic, and behavioral-anxiety) stress response. Moreover, the stress-dampening by sucrose appears to be mediated primarily by its rewarding properties, since beneficial effects are reproduced by the noncaloric sweetener saccharin but not oral intragastric gavage of sucrose. The present work uses an alternate strategy to address the hypothesis that the rewarding properties of sucrose mediate its stress-dampening. This work varies the duration, frequency, and/or volume of sucrose and assesses the ability to attenuate HPA axis stress responses. The data indicate that HPA-dampening is optimal with a greater duration and/or frequency of sucrose, whereas increasing the volume of sucrose consumed is without effect. This finding suggests that the primary factor mediating stress-dampening is the number/rate of reward (i.e., sucrose) exposures, rather than the total sucrose calories consumed. Collectively, these data support the hypothesis that stress relief by limited palatable food intake is mediated primarily by its hedonic/rewarding properties. Moreover, the results support the contention that naturally rewarding behaviors are a physiological means to produce stress relief.

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