In case you thought it was just you who seemed to gravitate toward sweet foods whenever under pressure at work or home, a new study may give you peace of mind. According to a recent study, there is a correlation between sweet flavors and stress that may be more biological than mental. Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found receptors for stress-activated hormones in, you guessed it, the human mouth.

Receptors for stress-activated hormones have been localized in the human taste buds responsible for sweet, umami, and bitter flavors, Newswise reported. In the study, published online in the journal Neuroscience Letters, researchers explain how they believe this may suggest these hormones, known as glucocorticoids, affect how our taste buds respond to sugars. Sweet taste may be particularly affected by stress,” said lead author Dr. M. Rockwell Parker, a chemical ecologist at Monell, to Newswise. “Our results may provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people eat more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress.”

The Science Bit

These glucocorticoids, or GC receptors, are specifically localized to the cells that are involved in tasting sweet umami (a pleasant savory flavor) and bitter foods. The highest concentration of GCs were found on taste buds especially sensitive to sweet and umami tastes. When these GC cells bind to their receptors within target cells, the activated receptor complex moves, or translocates, to the cell’s nucleus.

This in turn would influence gene expression and protein assembly. In their study, researchers compared the proportion of taste cells with translocated receptors in stressed in and non-stressed mice. Results showed that stressed mice had a 77 percent increase of GC receptors in taste cell nuclei. According to Newswise, this means that the sweet perception and intake may be specifically affected via secretion of GCs and activation of GC receptors.

What This Means For You

Taste receptors are found in the mouth and thriving throughout the body. "Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients and affecting appetite," senior author and Monell molecular neurobiologist Robert Margolskee explained to Newswise.

Emotional eating is not a new concept. A 2005 study found that consuming food or drink with sweet flavoring might also help to reduce stress by lowering the amount of stress-related hormones in the body. “We actually found that sugar snacks, not artificially sweetened snacks, are better 'self-medications' for the two most common types of stress — psychological and physical," Dr. Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, lead researcher of the study, explained to Science Daily. Psychological stress is described as occurring when an individual has to give a public speech or when coping with the death of a loved one. Physical stress is associated with injury, illness, or prolonged exposure to cold, Science Daily reported. “Taste provides one of our initial evaluations of potential foods. If this sense can be directly affected by stress-related hormonal changes, our food interaction will likewise be altered,” Parker explained To Medical News Today.

On A Side Note…

Stress is not the only emotion that has been linked to taste alteration. In one study, researchers found that the emotions of love and jealousy were able to change people's perceptions of the sweet and bitter flavors. Even in a control substance, such as water, when participants were asked to concentrate on a certain emotion, they often described the water as having either a particularly sweet or bitter flavoring, The Huffington Post reported.

Source: Parker MR, Feng D, Charmuris B, Margolskee RF. Expression and nuclear translocation of glucocorticoid receptors in type 2 taste receptors cells. Science Direct. 2014.