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Study Fleshes Out The Food-Stress Link

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If your response to stress is to reach for the nearest doughnut, there's good news and bad news.

The good news: Indulging in high-fat, high-carbohydrate ''comfort foods'' appears to put the brakes on the out-of-control hormonal cascade caused by chronic stress, according to a paper in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The bad news: Researchers don't yet know what specific metabolic signal is acting as the brake.

So although a candy bar or three can help stop the hormones the body produces in response to chronic stress, it's unclear whether going for a run to burn off those calories negates the effect.

In rats, that is. Senior author Mary Dallman, a professor of physiology at the University of California-San Francisco, investigates stress in rats. She found that when the rats ate foods high in fat and carbohydrates, an as-yet-unknown metabolic signal appeared to quiet their chronic-stress feedback system.

Short-term stress sets off the ''fight or flight'' mechanism. Non-essential bodily functions shut down, adrenalin increases, the heart speeds up, the lungs open and immune function is primed.

When the danger is over, steroid hormones are secreted that help convert energy stores and bring the immune system back to normal. Other steroids are secreted to stop the entire hormonal cascade.

With chronic stress, those steroids become elevated, and instead of turning the system off, they ramp it up. This can result in immune-system overload, vulnerability to infections, anxiety, depression, obesity and coronary disease.

Eating, or the fat gained from eating, ''seems to be an important feedback pathway to help rein in stress reaction in the brain and the body,'' co-author Norman Pecoraro says. ''It's your body telling your brain, 'Things are getting better -- calm down.' ''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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