Are you craving a sweet treat? You might be stressed!

Most people crave sweet or salty foods like biscuits, chocolates or crisps when under stress and research from America is revealing why this may be.[1]

Scientists have discovered receptor sites on taste buds that respond to the glucocorticoid hormones cortisol, cortisone and corticosterone, altering our taste perception when stressed.  These hormones are released from the adrenal glands in response to stress and influence the way we metabolise glucose (sugar) from the diet and also the glucose stores in the body. 

Understanding Taste

Our tongues have different types of taste buds that distinguish the five predominant flavours in the food that we eat; these correspond to salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savoury, sometimes called “unami” after the Japanese for “delicious”. The study revealed how taste bud cells responsible for bitter, salty and sweet tastes have binding sites for the adrenal stress hormones and are activated when we are facing stressful situations.

Commenting on the results, senior study author Robert Margolskee stated how the findings may have implications for cells in other parts of the body that are also influenced by stress hormones: “Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress, potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients affecting appetite.”

Taste Receptors and Health

Taste receptors anywhere other than on the tongue and in the mouth might sound odd but recent research has uncovered ‘taste’ receptors in other parts of the digestive tract, as well as the brain. In the gut, these chemosensory cells can sense basic tastes and quite literally ‘taste’ the contents of the gut lumen and transmit signals that regulate nutrient absorption and release of gut hormones and neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of energy and glucose homeostasis. In fact, taste receptors in the gut have an emerging role in both health and disease where these taste receptor pathways along the gut may induce or indeed resolve a number of pathological conditions related to diabetes, obesity or even Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).[2]

In the pancreas, there are taste receptors that sense sweet flavours and, once activated, lead to secretion of insulin from the pancreatic beta cells. Studies suggest that pancreatic taste receptors are also affected by adrenal stress hormones suggesting an important link in the relationships between taste, palatability, taste receptors and hedonic responses to food, often linked in cases of obesity.[3]

So what if there’s something we can do to manage our sweet cravings and the impact this has on glucose homeostasis and insulin signalling, which have been linked to development of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome?[4]

It seems that if we tackle the root cause of why we are stressed, and incorporate stress management techniques into our everyday lives, then this might go someway to protect our health in the short and long-term. Not to mention being able to enjoy life to the full!

Nutrition for a Calm Life

We now understand that during stressful times cravings for salty, bitter and/or sweet tastes can take over and direct our choices towards highly salted and sugar rich foods, which in turn affects insulin levels, blood sugars and depletes our nutrient status in part through affecting nutrient absorption via the gut.

Poor eating habits and food choices not only leave the body without essential nutrients but also disrupts or creates a burden on the stress response, digestive, energy production and other homeostatic systems. Whilst we may know that junk foods are contributing to this vicious stress cycle but we can find it difficult to stop.

So we might be craving sweet, sugary treats but if we can manage our blood sugar through the diet then this will help balance insulin levels and help, in part, to break the craving cycle. Foods that support blood sugar balance include:

  • Complex carbohydrates, e.g. sweet potato, oats, quinoa, brown rice
  • Protein, e.g. eggs, beans, lentils, fish, chicken
  • Beneficial fats, e.g. oily fish, eggs, avocado, organic flaxseed oil, organic coconut oil

A wide variety of phytonutrients from different whole fruits (not processed juices) and vegetables also provides many essential nutrients, including magnesium and calcium that are important to reducing many symptoms of stress including anxiety and fatigue.[5] Ensuring adequate hydration is equally important, as dehydration can put our bodies under more stress. This means drinking around 1.5-2L hydrating fluids including water, herbal teas and coconut water.

Supplements for a Calm Life

Supplementing our diet may also play a role in helping us change our dietary habits by supporting our adrenal glands through stressful times, which allows us to naturally make better food choices.

Supporting supplements could include:

  • B vitamins are required in higher quantities by the adrenals and stressed cells. Calcium pantothenate or pantothenic acid (also known as Vitamin B5) is particularly recommended at times of stress and adrenal fatigue and may be supplemented at higher levels alongside a multi B vitamin complex.
  • Vitamin C works alongside Vitamin B5 in production of adrenal hormones, as well as many other important areas of health. A mixed ascorbate form is less acidic so is gentler on the digestive tract, an important point if stress is playing havoc with digestion!
  • Magnesium (as organic citrate) helps in many areas of health including sleep, relaxation and production of cell energy (ATP).
  • Digestive enzymes can help facilitate digestion and increase nutrient absorption, which is often compromised by stress.

Actions for a Calm Life

It’s not just diet that can help to manage stress and improve blood sugar balance. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help the stress response and decrease the stress load mentally, emotionally and physically.[6] Some lifestyle stress management techniques include:

  • Take a look at your diary and only take action over the essential commitments. Either stop unnecessary commitments or put these at a time when you are under less pressure.
  • Create 20minutes of ‘you’ time each day – this needs to be free (uncommitted) time every day where you can do something relaxing and that you enjoy.
  • Prioritise sleep and create a consistent routine, ideally being in bed around 10.30pm and waking up around 7am. Spend the last hour before bedtime relaxing by taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to relaxing music.
  • Laugh as much as possible. Make it a point to laugh every day by reading humorous books, movies or stories, watching funny YouTube clips – anything that makes you laugh. Laughter activates the calming (parasympathetic) part of the nervous system so automatically induces relaxation.

Whatever your approach or combination of calming habits, it’s critical to manage stress for both short and long-term health. So now you understand one origin of food cravings, do something relaxing right now to break that vicious cycle.


  1. Rockwell Parker et al (2014) Expression and nuclear translocation of glucocorticoid receptors in type 2 taste receptor cells. Neuroscience Letters 571:72-77
  2. Depoortere  (2014) Taste receptors of the gut: emerging roles in health and disease. Gut 63(1):179-90
  3. Egan et al (2015) The endocrinology of taste receptors. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 11(4):213-27
  4. Rippe (2016) Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients 8(11): 697
  5. Boyle (2017) The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress—A Systematic Review. Nutrients 9(5):429
  6. Wilson (2014) Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. 1:93-96

Written By:
Elisabeth Philipps

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