Stress said to impair self-control

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Self-control and stress don’t get along very well, a new research suggests, as experiments have shown that stressful conditions hamper self-control to the point that it also affects our eating habits.

In a new research, lead author Silvia Maier, of the University of Zurich’s Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research and her team studied how stress can alter the brain to bring about a decline in self-control and subsequently force them to make food choices that are otherwise unhealthy for them.

Researcher reveal in their study, published in Neuron, that their findings pave way for understanding interactions between stress and self-control in the human brain, with the effects of stress operating through multiple neural pathways.

A total of 51 volunteers were studied for the research with 29 participants undergoing a treatment known to induce moderate stress in the laboratory. These volunteers were asked to immerse a hand in an ice water bath for 3 minutes. Following this treatment, they were asked to choose between two food options – one which was tasty yet unhealthy while the other being less tasty but healthy.

An additional 22 participants did not undergo the treatment and were asked to choose between the food options directly.

One of the key things of the research was that all volunteers of the study were making an effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so the choice of food created an internal conflict between eating a very tasty but unhealthy item and one that is healthy but less tasty.

The findings reveal that volunteers who had undergone the stress treatment opted for food taste as overweighing attributes and were more likely to choose an unhealthy food compared with people who were not stressed indicating that stress did play a part in their food choices.

Researchers say that self-control abilities are sensitive to perturbations at several points within this network, and optimal self-control requires a precise balance of input from multiple brain regions rather than a simple on/off switch.

Senior author Todd Hare said that even moderate levels of stress were enough to impair self-control and this is important because moderate stressors are more common than extreme events and this means that there will be more and frequent influence on self-control even from moderate stressful events and for a larger portion of the population.

The study authors emphasised that though their research gives a glimpse of the effects of stress on food choices, further work is needed to fully understand the mechanisms involved.

Stress & Brain

Researchers found during the course of the study that stress were also visible in the brain with stressed participants’ brains exhibited altered patterns of connectivity between various brain regions including the amygdala, striatum, and the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

These altered connectivity patterns essentially reduced individuals’ ability to exercise self-control over food choices. Only some of these changes were associated with cortisol, a hormone commonly linked to stress.

There was also a good deal of variation in the degree to which stress affected individuals in the study, so it will be important to investigate why some people are more resilient than others.

According to researchers one of the avenues for future research could be to determine whether some of the factors shown to protect against structural brain changes following severe stress–such as exercise and social support–can also buffer the effects of moderate stress on decision making.