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Have you ever wondered why a doughnut or a bagel with cream cheese sounds so delicious the morning after you’ve pulled an all-nighter or stayed up late with a sick baby? Or why most people would opt for a pint of ice cream over a bowl of mixed berries at the end of a long day? The reason is pretty simple, actually: stress.
Sugar and other foods can influence our internal regulatory systems.
We know that eating tasty (aka: high-sugar, high-fat) foods in response to stress can activate the reward system in the brain via the opioid, dopamine, and the endocannabinoid systems—which are the systems responsible for the feelings you gain from using morphine, marijuana, and cocaine. Basically, this means that when you eat that doughnut in the morning, you're influencing these systems, which makes you feel good and activates the part of our brain called the limbic system—which influences instinct and mood, in addition to fear, pleasure, and anger, among other emotions.
As a result, we reinforce a behavioral pattern in our brains that says, "You need to eat this to help you feel better." When we do this, it reduces or blunts the stress activation system, which does actually make us feel better in the moment. In other words, we use yummy, addictive foods to self-regulate our stress-activation system, which involves the adrenal glands and the stress hormone cortisol. And that's just the beginning of the story.
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