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Calm down! Stress can trigger a sweet tooth, activate hormones in taste buds

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Next time you're about to hit the panic button and stress out, don't only think about your heart, think about your figure.

That's the underlying message in a new study that claims stress can turn on certain hormones located in our oral taste buds. Yes, they're talking about the ones that detect sweet-tasting foods.

Researchers from the nonprofit Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pa., say they have discovered that stress can increase the body's output of glucocorticoids (GCs), hormones that activate GC receptors in the cells. Their research shows that these receptors, located on the tongue, are found in cells that make up taste receptors responsible for identifying sweet, savory and bitter tastes.

Using lab mice, the researchers found that the highest levels of GC receptors were found in taste cells called Tas1r3, which are especially sensitive to sweet and umami, or savory, tastes. Their research showed that stressed mice had 77 percent more GC receptors in their taste cells than the nonstressed mice did.

"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," explained M. Rockwell Parker, lead researcher on the Monell team. "Sweet taste may be particularly affected by stress. Our results may provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people eat more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress."

The research also pointed out that taste buds are not only found on the tongue but are also present in the gut and pancreas. The team was able to hypothesize that stress can affect taste receptors in these areas as well.

"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 the report's senior author Dr. Robert Margolskee.

Our love of sweets in general is well documented. A recent report by market research publisher Packaged Facts projects retail sales in the packaged sweet baked-snacks and desserts market will exceed $14 billion in 2017.

While the human tongue can detect four basic flavors -- salt, sour, bitter and sweet -- we are clearly drawn to sweet because, according to many researchers, we are primates, animals that evolved eating fruit in the trees.

Clearly, not unlike the mice in the Monell experiments, we often turn to sweets as a comfort during stressful times.

The research team has published its findings in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

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