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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011 Nov;36(10):1513-9. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.04.005. Epub 2011 Sep 8.

Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women.

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Departments of Psychology and Nutrition, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8020, United States.


Chronically stressed rodents who are allowed to eat calorie-dense "comfort" food develop greater mesenteric fat, which in turn dampens hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis activity. We tested whether similar relations exist in humans, at least cross-sectionally. Fifty-nine healthy premenopausal women were exposed to a standard laboratory stressor to examine HPA response to acute stress and underwent diurnal saliva sampling for basal cortisol and response to dexamethasone administration. Based on perceived stress scores, women were divided into extreme quartiles of low versus high stress categories. We found as hypothesized that the high stress group had significantly greater BMI and sagittal diameter, and reported greater emotional eating. In response to acute lab stressor, the high stress group showed a blunted cortisol response, lower diurnal cortisol levels, and greater suppression in response to dexamethasone. These cross-sectional findings support the animal model, which suggests that long-term adaptation to chronic stress in the face of dense calories result in greater visceral fat accumulation (via ingestion of calorie-dense food), which in turn modulates HPA axis response, resulting in lower cortisol levels.

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