Stress, eating and the reward system

Physiol Behav. 2007 Jul 24;91(4):449-58. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011. Epub 2007 Apr 14.


An increasing number of people report concerns about the amount of stress in their life. At the same time obesity is an escalating health problem worldwide. Evidence is accumulating rapidly that stress related chronic stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and resulting excess glucocorticoid exposure may play a potential role in the development of visceral obesity. Since adequate regulation of energy and food intake under stress is important for survival, it is not surprising that the HPA axis is not only the 'conductor' of an appropriate stress response, but is also tightly intertwined with the endocrine regulation of appetite. Here we attempt to link animal and human literatures to tease apart how different types of psychological stress affect eating. We propose a theoretical model of Reward Based Stress Eating. This model emphasizes the role of cortisol and reward circuitry on motivating calorically dense food intake, and elucidating potential neuroendocrine mediators in the relationship between stress and eating. The addiction literature suggests that the brain reward circuitry may be a key player in stress-induced food intake. Stress as well as palatable food can stimulate endogenous opioid release. In turn, opioid release appears to be part of an organisms' powerful defense mechanism protecting from the detrimental effects of stress by decreasing activity of the HPA axis and thus attenuating the stress response. Repeated stimulation of the reward pathways through either stress induced HPA stimulation, intake of highly palatable food or both, may lead to neurobiological adaptations that promote the compulsive nature of overeating. Cortisol may influence the reward value of food via neuroendocrine/peptide mediators such as leptin, insulin and neuropeptide Y (NPY). Whereas glucocorticoids are antagonized by insulin and leptin acutely, under chronic stress, that finely balanced system is dysregulated, possibly contributing to increased food intake and visceral fat accumulation. While these mechanisms are only starting to be elucidated in humans, it appears the obesity epidemic may be exacerbated by the preponderance of chronic stress, unsuccessful attempts at food restriction, and their independent and possibly synergistic effects on increasing the reward value of highly palatable food.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Eating / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Obesity / psychology
  • Reward*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Physiological / psychology*