Can Sugar Actually Relieve Stress?

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There's a new explanation for why reaching for that sugar-packed Pepsi can give you soothing relief when you're under pressure: According to a new study, downing sugar-sweetened drinks can actually lower your body's response to stress, giving you a quick fix from panic and anxiety. But don't get carried away so fast: In the long run, it's also messing up your body's ability to confront stress in a healthy, strong, and natural way.

"While the idea of 'comfort food' has been around forever, the physiological basis for comfort food or stress-eating is still unclear," says study author and nutrition professor at the University of California Davis, Kevin Laugero. "Our study in humans, along with previous groundbreaking studies in rodent models, points to a new physiological basis for eating foods high in sugar in response to or in anticipation of a stressful situation."

Laugero and his colleagues had 19 women drink beverage sweetened with either sugar or aspartame (what's used in Diet Soda) three times a day for two weeks. They found compared to the women who drank aspartame, those who knocked back the sugar-sweetened beverages not only showed lower levels of cortisol — the hormone that usually spikes when you're stressed — in their saliva, but also maintained a low amount after taking a stress-inducing math test. The women who drank the sugary drinks also showed less nausea and more activity in the brain's left hippocampus — an area known to get stifled when you're stressed. Sugar, says Laugero, "appears to dampen or prevent neural (hippocampus) and endocrine (cortisol) stress responses."

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But just like with drugs, alcohol, or consuming too much of anything, beware: Turning to sugar can send your body into overdrive, making you not only crave more (leading to a higher risk for disease) but also damaging your ability to deal with future stressful situations. "Any chronic overuse of something like sugar to cope with ongoing stress may not be a healthy habit," says Laugero. "This body-brain pathway that is affected by sugar may make some people who are experiencing stress more hooked on sugar and possibly more vulnerable to obesity and its related conditions."

He adds more research must be done on other drinks and foods besides what was used in the study. Regardless, sugar-sweetened foods are still a well-known culprit for a bunch of health dangers from heart disease to some types of cancer, and avoiding them can't hurt: Take the high road and ditch the super sweet comfort foods.

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