Anticipation of a psychosocial stressor differentially influences ghrelin, cortisol and food intake among emotional and non-emotional eaters

Appetite. 2014 Mar;74:35-43. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.018. Epub 2013 Dec 1.


Negative emotions trigger eating in some individuals (emotional eaters) possibly by influencing stress hormones that contribute to eating regulation (e.g., cortisol), or eating-related peptides (e.g., ghrelin) signaling food initiation. The present study assessed whether stressor-elicited cortisol and ghrelin changes would differ between emotional and non-emotional eaters, and whether eating would influence these neuroendocrine responses. Undergraduate women (N=103) who completed measures of emotional eating, were assigned to anticipate either a stressful (public speaking) or non-stressful event. During this period, participants were or were not offered food. Blood samples were taken continuously over a 40-min period to assess changes of cortisol and ghrelin levels, and mood was assessed after the anticipation period. Baseline ghrelin levels were lower in emotional than non-emotional eaters, and this relation was mediated by percent body fat. Ghrelin levels were elevated among women anticipating a stressor, compared to those in the control condition. Additionally, the normal decline of ghrelin following food consumption was not apparent among emotional eaters. Although food intake was not tied to hormone responses, reported hunger was associated with greater food intake for women in the stressor condition. It was suggested that emotional eating coupled with subjective feelings of hunger, might contribute to eating in response to an acute stressor. Additionally, feedback mechanisms controlling the normalization of ghrelin levels might be disturbed in emotional eaters. The similarity of the ghrelin profile of emotional eaters to that of binge eaters and obese individuals, raises the possibility that disturbed ghrelin response might be a risk factor for such conditions.

Keywords: Cortisol; Emotional eater; Food intake; Ghrelin; Stressor anticipation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / physiology
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Anticipation, Psychological*
  • Body Constitution
  • Body Mass Index
  • Energy Intake
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Ghrelin / blood*
  • Humans
  • Hunger / physiology
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Postprandial Period / physiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult


  • Ghrelin
  • Hydrocortisone