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When we’re hit with too much stress, we rely on our brains to flip the cellular switch that prevents us from eating more than we need. But new research suggests that it’s not just your brain that’s responding to the stress spike. Your fat tissue is also getting in on the act — and not always in a helpful way.

A team of scientists from the University of Florida and the University of Cincinnati has discovered a novel connection between fat tissue and stress response, one that may hinder the brain’s ability to effectively moderate the metabolic systems that control appetite. Results of the study were published in the June issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“It moved our understanding of stress control to include other parts of the body,” said James Herman, PhD, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati, in a statement released by the University of Florida. “Before this, everyone thought that the regulation of stress was mainly due to the brain. It’s not just in the brain. This study suggests that stress regulation occurs on a much larger scale, including body systems controlling metabolism, such as fat.”

This is not a problem, said Eric Krause, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy, unless you’re harboring too much fat tissue. “The stress response in the short term is adaptive. It’s going to help you cope with stress,” Krause said. “The idea that fat is actually talking to the brain to dampen stress is new.”

But that extra fat can send mixed signals. The study found that glucocorticoids, steroid hormones in fat tissue, activate their receptors in response to stress hormones in a way that can interfere with the brain’s signals to stop eating.

Researchers said they hoped to use these findings to develop drugs or other therapies to treat the negative effects of long-term stress. “The big question is the nature of the signal to the brain,” said Herman. “We need to learn how to go in and break that cycle of stress, eating, and weight gain.”

To learn more about stress and the body, see “The Science of Stress” in our June 2013 issue.

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