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Neuroimaging study: Unregulated stress can sabotage your self-control and your diet

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Brain scans show how every­day stress can sab­o­tage your diet (CBS News):

As any­one who’s ever downed a pint of ice cream after a bad day at the office knows, the stress­es of every­day life can sab­o­tage self-con­trol when it comes to diet. But why?

When peo­ple are under stress, even at mod­est lev­els, tasty food wins out over health­i­er options because the brain’s sig­nal for taste is “loud­er” than the inten­tion to eat healthy…The small neu­ro­science study of 51 peo­ple asked them to choose between foods while they had fMRI brain scans, to see how the deci­sion-mak­ing process affect­ed their brains.

The way to get around this wiring for choos­ing what tastes good over what’s health­i­er, Maier said, is plan­ning. “If you know you have a stress­ful day and you come home, soon­er or lat­er you will make the trip to your kitchen cup­board and get that snack. Instead, you can just not buy it in the first place and not tempt your­self.”

Study: Acute Stress Impairs Self-Con­trol in Goal-Direct­ed Choice by Alter­ing Mul­ti­ple Func­tion­al Con­nec­tions with­in the Brain’s Deci­sion Cir­cuits (Neu­ron)

  • Abstract: Impor­tant deci­sions are often made under stress­ful cir­cum­stances that might com­pro­mise self-reg­u­la­to­ry behav­ior. Yet the neur­al mech­a­nisms by which stress influ­ences self-con­trol choic­es are unclear. We inves­ti­gat­ed these mech­a­nisms in human par­tic­i­pants who faced self-con­trol dilem­mas over food reward while under­go­ing fMRI fol­low­ing stress. We found that stress increased the influ­ence of imme­di­ate­ly reward­ing taste attrib­ut­es on choice and reduced self-con­trol. This choice pat­tern was accom­pa­nied by increased func­tion­al con­nec­tiv­i­ty between ven­tro­me­di­al pre­frontal cor­tex (vmPFC) and amyg­dala and stri­atal regions encod­ing tasti­ness. Fur­ther­more, stress was asso­ci­at­ed with reduced con­nec­tiv­i­ty between the vmPFC and dor­so­lat­er­al pre­frontal cor­tex regions linked to self-con­trol suc­cess. Notably, alter­ations in con­nec­tiv­i­ty path­ways could be dis­so­ci­at­ed by their dif­fer­en­tial rela­tion­ships with cor­ti­sol and per­ceived stress. Our results indi­cate that stress may com­pro­mise self-con­trol deci­sions by both enhanc­ing the impact of imme­di­ate­ly reward­ing attrib­ut­es and reduc­ing the effi­ca­cy of regions pro­mot­ing behav­iors that are con­sis­tent with long-term goals.

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