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December 2005 Issue

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Stress - Why More Women Than Men Might Be Reaching for Sweet Treats

Published December 2005

Do the holidays tend to "stress you out" and have you reaching for another cookie or piece of pie?

Well, it turns out you might not be as stressed out as you think.

Snacking, says UC stress neurobiologist Jim Herman, PhD, might be a preventive measure our body takes to keep us from being totally consumed by stress.

"In fact, when we're really completely stressed, we tend to eat less," he adds.

n November, Dr. Herman co-authored a presentation with postdoctoral fellow Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, PhD. They reported that rats consuming sugar snacks produced less of a stress-related hormone called corticosterone--which has been linked to obesity and decreased immune response.

Although he is quick to point out that eating to fight off stress has obvious implications for body weight and may in fact contribute to obesity, Dr. Herman says this work suggests there may be a way to "self-medicate" when exposed to psychological or physical stress.

But his research doesn't stop at sweet snacks.

Dr. Herman leads the stress neurobiology program in UC's department of psychiatry. His lab is located at Genome Research Institute, where his team, part of the Obesity Research Center, studies a wide range of relationships between the actions of the central nervous system and stress hormones to learn more about affective disease states and neuronal aging.

"In other words, we want to know how the body, particularly the brain, responds to stress and stress-related disorders," he says.

In laboratory experiments, Dr. Herman and his team recreate stressful situations and then view the body's reaction. In addition to their "sweet" finding, they recently discovered differences in stress response between males and females.

A study led by research assistant professor Helmer Figueiredo, PhD, found evidence that females might be more sensitive to chronic stress than males. In a 15-day study involving chronic-stress conditions, female rats produced more corticosterone than male rats--possibly leaving females at greater risk for the negative health affects associated with this hormone.

"Serious disorders such as major depression, anxiety and auto-immune dysfunctions, all linked to higher levels of circulating stress homones, are more prevalent among women than men," says Dr. Herman.

Understanding how the stress response is handled differently between males and females, Dr. Herman says, is a major goal for the development of "female-sensitive" drugs.

This year, Dr. Herman was awarded a National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) grant to study neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to reorganize and make new connections) in depression.

"The brain is hard-wired to produce stress hormone responses," says Dr. Herman. "This grant is designed to test how chronic stress disrupts this wiring and causes symptoms of depression."

The work, a multiple-site NIMH network collaboration between scientists at UC, Marquette University, Tulane University and the University of Michigan, is complemented by another grant awarded to scientists at Tulane.

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