The Hidden Culprit of Stress Eating


Ghrelin is a potent appetite stimulant that is released from the stomach.  This hormone makes foods high in fat and calories especially appealing. Every wonder why you eat more if you’ve skipped a meal or have not been getting enough sleep lately? Ghrelin is the culprit! Not only does ghrelin urge you to order that late night pizza before a big exam, but a recent study by Dr. Jeffrey Zigman shows that it could also play a role in stress eating. When you’re stressed, there is nothing more comforting than mashed potatoes, ice cream and macaroni and cheese right? No wonder I gain those few extra pounds during finals! Thanks ghrelin.

Interestingly, high levels of ghrelin can reduce anxiety and depression – before it makes you want to stuff your face. Dr. Zigman proposed that this may have been an evolutionarily advantageous response. In order to catch a high-calorie dinner, our ancestors had to be calm and vigilant, as opposed to depressed and anxious. Perhaps this was also beneficial in the past so that humans had the glucose they needed to maintain high energy levels while fighting animals or enemies. Either way, I think we can agree that in most of our lives today, the effects of ghrelin are more of a disadvantage, often resulting in weight gain. We live in a stressful world. Perhaps ghrelin plays a role in higher obesity rates, as more people experience chronic stress.

Dr. Zigman’s study examined rats that underwent chronic social stress.  I am curious if these high ghrelin rates also occur during acute stress.  This may seem counter intuitive as the sympathetic nervous system and glucocorticoids inhibit digestion during periods of acute stress, but our feeding mechanism is pretty complicated. As for treating obesity, unfortunately ghrelin is not the answer. Ghrelin levels are remarkably low in obese individuals. Perhaps stress causes high ghrelin levels, which causes overeating and weight gain, which eventually results in hypersensitivity to ghrelin.   More research must be done to find out!

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9 thoughts on “The Hidden Culprit of Stress Eating

  1. It would be interesting to look at Ghrelin levels in bulimic adolescents, hypothesizing that their urges to eat junk food might be from high levels of Ghrelin.


  2. I can strongly relate to this because just 2 days ago I found myself craving chocolate the night before an exam. I would be curious to find out how exactly ghrelin causes cravings for high-calorie food vs. just food in general.


  3. It would be interesting to study how lack of sleep contributes to increased amounts of ghrelin. Is it more motivated by our metabolism being thrown off or does our body release ghrelin in this situation to make us less depressed and anxious when we’re sleep deprived? Our feeding mechanisms are so complicated, it is probably a little of both.


  4. In high school my mom would always cook classic comfort foods for dinner such as mac n’cheese and chicken noodle soup to counteract the stress and lack of sleep experienced during finals. I had never really thought about the connection between the cravings people had and the amount of stress or sleep they got. It is interesting to study the correlation between stress, sleep, cravings, food consumption, and hormone levels.


  5. I also think that the wide-spread availability of cheap, easy access, high calorie foods in combination with ghrelin make it more difficult to make healthy choices when stressed. When was the last time you saw a healthy snack in a vending machine or a dollar menu that involved vegetables other than the potato? You’re definitely right; our ancestors had to catch or find their meals and had reason to make the least energetically expensive choice during stress, but technology has allowed us to have too much convenient access to high-fructose, partially-hydrogenated, saturated stuff around just about every corner. In combination with ghrelin and the high-pressure environment of an institution like Colby, it’s no wonder you hear so much about the freshman fifteen (which used to be the freshman five when our parents were in college, and that was probably more likely the “cafeteria diet” than anything else)… blegh. I think I need a carrot.


  6. I have to agree with Kate – the access to high calorie food is a huge problem when stress hits. When those midnight hunger pangs hit me, I can walk downstairs and get high-calorie, sugary, and fatty snacks for less than a dollar. If ghrelin is actually linked to stress, it would be a great explanation for the current obesity epidemic. Our world is so technologically advanced that it is possible for us to be working 24/7. Studies (I don’t know which ones exactly) have shown that we work more hours per week than any other generation ever has. Clearly, stress has skyrocketed because of this. If stress caused ghrelin levels to increase, we would have a perfect storm: high levels of stress, high levels of ghrelin, and easy access to the foods we desire when ghrelin is high. Scary and interesting at the same time…


  7. I think that the college environment is a perfect place to see high levels of Ghrelin’s effects, not only by just making the vending machine look like heaven, but by studying some of the benefits of it. Maybe those high levels of Ghrelin that causes the familiar feeling of wanting to order some WHOP at 2am before our next midterm actually calmed us down and focused us enough to crank through our work and ace that midterm. Maybe future research can use college students to see if there is any benefit to these high levels of Ghrelin.


  8. I agree with James that the college environment would be a perfect place to study the effects of ghrelin in relation to stress. As college is a stressful place and exam period is increasingly chaotic, we can see the effect of stress eating. Additionally, the dining halls at Colby do not serve the healthiest of foods. For example, Dana provides a wide variety of food. But, the staples are the Dana burgers and the pasta bar, neither of which are healthy for the body. Therefore, it would be interesting to pursue further research on the cafeteria diet in relation to ghrelin. It would be interesting to see whether college students eat more unhealthy than normal due to the combination of an excessive amount of choices available but a limited amount of healthy food served in the dining hall.


  9. Ghrelin is definitely something that it putting us at more of a disadvantage than it used to. Since in modern times, many Americans find work more important than their health, people don’t get enough sleep. Since it increases with sleep deprivation, it makes sense that many busy people would gain more weight. Combined with all the access we have to unhealthy food, obviously obesity is a huge problem. Luckily we are learning about the mechanisms that make us feel hungry or satiated, and hopefully soon there won’t be as many obese people in America.


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