Stress receptors in taste buds may explain emotional eating

Chomping on a donut in a moment of stress may just be your body reacting to hormonal changes.

According to new research, stress can actually activate certain hormones located in oral taste buds – ones that detect sweet tasting foods, Medical News Today reported.

Researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pa., studied mouse models to understand why we reach for the sweet stuff when we’re feeling emotional. They found that stress can increase the body’s secretion of glucocorticoids (GCs), hormones that activate GC receptors in the cells. These receptors, located on the tongue, are found in cells that make up taste receptors responsible for identifying sweet, savory and bitter tastes.

The study found that the highest level of GC receptors were found in taste cells that detect sweet and savory tastes, Tas1r3. Stress has also been found to increase intake of salty foods, but this study did not identify any GC receptors in salty/sour taste buds.

In the study, mice under stress had a 77 percent higher level of GC receptors in their taste cells, compared to non-stressed mice. The findings, published in Neuroscience Letters, suggest that perception and intake of sweet foods may be directly influenced by GC secretion and activation of GC receptors – actions that are triggered by stress.

"Sweet taste may be particularly affected by stress,” said lead study author M. Rockwell Parker. “Our results may provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people eat more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress.”

Researchers point out that taste buds aren’t just found on the tongue, but in the gut and pancreas as well. They hypothesize that stress may also affect taste receptors in these areas – but further research into the association is needed.

"Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients and affecting appetite," said senior author Dr. Robert Margolskee.

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