Ice cream cravings while you are anxiously preparing for a presentation or exam may be triggered by your brain’s desire for relief from stress. (Credits: Austin Kirk,
In America, uncontrolled sugar consumption is a concern because of its contributions to obesity and diabetes. A recent study investigated the psychological basis of sugar cravings during times of stress. Researchers proposed that sugar turns down the stress response in the human brain. As a result, we may be consuming sugar as a quick way to hold back feelings of stress.

To test this hypothesis, scientists conducted stress tests in two groups of women. For two weeks, one group was asked to drink beverages containing sugar three times a day, while the other was asked to drink beverages with a substitute, aspartame. The women took the stress test before and after the treatment, and measurements of the brain’s responses to stress were made: 1) the production of a stress compound, cortisol, and 2) activity in a certain region of the brain, the hippocampus. Their results suggest that sugar consumption somehow changes cortisol levels and hippocampus activity during stress, and perhaps how the brain perceives and responds to stressful events.

Unfortunately, we still do not have a complete explanation for how sugar affects the response to stress. Hippocampus activity is regulated by many factors, not just stress. How changes in activity in the hippocampus relate to the stress response remains vague. Also, how cortisol production and brain activity are coordinated to bring about the brain’s response to stress in response to sugar is unclear. More work is required to understand how sugar consumption affects the brain during times of stress.

Managing Correspondent: Emily Low

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to contributing correspondent Anna Leshinskaya, a Graduate Student in the Psychology Department at Harvard, for providing expert advice on MRI brain imaging and neuroscience.

Original journal article: The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism

Media coverage:

6 thoughts on “Ask the Brain: Why Do We Crave Sugar When We’re Stressed?

  1. Chocolate syrup on ice cream or a chocolate soda is an instant stress reliever for me. I have severe issues of generalized anxiety disorder for no reason and can’t relax when thinking which I hold my breath .I wish there were meds for this . Benzos and alcohol is all that ever helped besides sweets. Now that I’m older I’m trying to eat healthy . I can’t eat sugar and chocolate constantly but I’m thinking about maybe boosters thru put the day I have cut down drinking and benzos
    are a no no anymore! I have just read about theses new nose drops for anxiety coming out. I hope they will work

  2. This entire post absolutely ROCKS! Thank you for all the hard work you put into it. It really shows.
    Great work. I really appreciate your quality work. Thank you so much for sharing this superb blog, this is really helped me a lot.

  3. It sure is interesting to know that sugar changes the cortisol levels in our brain which helps relieve stress. My daughter is coming home for the weekend. She is in her last year of engineering, so I would guess that she is under a lot of stress. It certainly looks like I would have to stock up on ice cream and her favorite snow cone syrups to help her blow off some steam.

    1. You are a good parent. I’m here because my parents don’t let me buy some snacks for myself even when I said this to them. They can spend so much to go to hotels but not to buy me some snacks when I need them.

      I have about 5 different exams the next two months. And I am too stressed to study, I need something sugary to study, or I just pass out on my bed. It’s not a new thing, my parents know that, I have hypoglycemic symptoms. This is the third time I’m crying cause I can’t stop myself from passing out. And I’m wasting my time.

      Even when they know that I usually need small sugary substance like chocolate while studying, they act oblivious to it. They bring up how one of my friend is poor and she might not be able to afford those, but she still studies.

      My dad tries his best to help me stress lesser, trying to set me up with more classes or trying to tutor me himself, but he doesn’t want to spend half the amount he spends for one of my 2 hour class. He nags me to have extra classes.

      But becomes concerned about money when I ask him to buy me snacks. I would usually ask only once or twice a week. I haven’t told anyone about this to anybody cause this makes me embarrassed, my dad can afford to buy me latest apple products, so it’s easier for me to study. But not buy me snacks when I study, I don’t even ask them for snacks when it’s not exam periods.

      My friends literally buy food every interval we get in our classes, I never do. I don’t see why my parents are so narrow minded. I don’t even ask them for snacks, except when I’m having exams.

      Even if he buys me, he would be having such a miserable face, that would just make me feel guilty. I really can’t stop crying, I don’t want to flop my exams because I can’t stay up.

      1. This just made my cry 🥲. But maybe your parents only want you to avoid unhealthy sugars? Give them benefit of doubt while you can for your own peace if mind.
        I hope your hypoglecemia gets better and you rock all the exams you take. Love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *