Stress Is Not a Trigger for Binge-Eating, Study Finds

While stress alters activity in parts of the human brain associated with self-inhibition, it does not trigger binge eating, according to new research published Monday.

Impaired proactive inhibition in bulimia nervosa is associated with increased superior frontal gyrus activity. (Credit: Westwater et al., JNeurosci 2021)

(CN) — Stress causes many unpleasant symptoms: fatigue, headaches, and upset stomach, to name a few. But binge eating is not among them.

Scientists have found that while stress alters activity in parts of the human brain associated with self-inhibition, it does not trigger binge eating, according to new research published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Recently recognized as an eating disorder, binge-eating disorder (BED) is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. People suffering from the disorder, which is also more common than breast cancer, can feel out of control and unable to stop eating. They often binge after stressful events, leading scientists to theorize that stress impairs a person’s ability to control behavior.

So scientists tested that theory. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which detects changes associated with blood flow, researchers measured the brain activity of women with anorexia, bulimia or without an eating disorder as they completed a task, either while stressed or relaxed.

The experiment tasked the women with pushing a button to stop a moving bar when it reached a specific point on a screen positioned in front of the women. On some trials the bar stopped early, forcing participants to prevent themselves from pressing the button.

Researchers found that stress altered the brain activity associated with inhibitory control in both groups with eating disorders but had no effect on task performance — meaning they still had the ability to stop their actions.

“These results indicate self-inhibition is preserved in the face of stress, so the actual mechanism behind binge-eating is more complex than previously thought,” the study concluded.

Binge-eating disorder is a life-threatening condition characterized by episodes of eating large quantities of food quickly, and often to the point of discomfort. Typically it generates a feeling of a loss of control during the binge, producing shame, distress or guilt in those who suffer from it. Binge eating is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.

Signs of binge eating include quick disappearance of large amounts of food or multiple empty wrappers and containers. People suffering from BED often appear uncomfortable eating around others and hoard food in unusual places.

In some cases, binge eating can cause the stomach to rupture, creating a life-threatening emergency. BED often begins in the late teens or early 20s and approximately 40% of people who experience it are male. Three out of 10 people searching for weight loss treatments show signs of BED.

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