Stressed out? Have some chocolate.

“Many of us will recall occasions when we skipped breakfast, grabbed a croissant or a muffin mid-morning, ate lunch staring at our computer screens or had fast food for dinner. If we’re a 21st century office worker, it’s likely we’re all familiar with these experiences.” These are the introductory words for a survey that investigated the connections between stress at work and unhealthy eating habits.

The full report by food psychologist Dr. Barbara Stewart-Knox of The Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE) at the University of Ulster and Herbalife is available online here.

4,980 office workers between 18 and 75 years of age in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy participated in the survey and reported their job roles, stress levels and eating habits. The good news was that eating habits amongst European office workers were healthier than for example those of American employees and overall okay. However, the survey also demonstrated that stress at work is related to high-energy food intake and unhealthy eating behaviours. Under stressful conditions, particularly women tend to overeat, and younger employees in middle- to senior-ranking jobs seem to be more prone to unhealthy snacking behaviours than older ones.

Why is this so? One explanation is that chronic stress is associated with reduced levels of insulin and leptin, the hormones responsible for storing energy. When less energy is stored, this means that also less energy is available when needed. Furthermore, lower levels of these two hormones seem lead to increased appetite, but decreased fat metabolism. Thus, when under chronic stress, we have less energy available and need to take more in, and we experience more appetite, while our fat metabolism does not work quite as well.

Interestingly, workers were found to eat healthier snacks when at work than when at home. One explanation provided in the report was that people want to present themselves as being on a good and healthy diet. But the other explanation is even more interesting: When returning from a stressful day at work, many people reward themselves by sweets or a glass of wine. Our internal reward system in the brain, ruled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, starts connecting “getting back home after a stressful day” to a pleasurable stimulus, i.e. sweets or wine. This often leads us to developing unhealthy eating habits. Furthermore, when we are tired (which we often are when we are under stress), we produce more of the hormone melatonin, which leads to a drop of the level of another hormone, leptin. This drop in the level of leptin seems to make us more prone to taking in sugary or fatty foods.

Furthermore, the study found that when workers feel stressed, it takes them longer to go to sleep than when not stressed. This again can be e vicious circle: workers are tired in the morning because they have not had enough sleep. As they are tired, they don’t work as efficiently and have to work longer. When they get back home late, they are even more stressed out, which makes it more difficult to go to sleep. And so on.

In the study, there are a few recommendations on how stress at work can be reduced. Enhancing physical activity at work is one of them. But also snacking habits should be changed. Of course, it is better to have fruit or yoghurt than chocolate or biscuits. But what is not too well-known is that also eating too much fruit can produce negative effects similar to the intake of too much chocolate. Fruit also raises the level of blood sugar, which is absorbed quickly by insulin. Thus, eating fruit leads to an energy pike that can drop again quickly and then may lead to the need for more sugar intake (which could be more fruit, but also sweets).

Furthermore, some people have learned in their childhood to associate fatty or sugary foods with relief from stress, boredom or unhappiness. Often, this association remains when they grow up, and thus, they use unhealthy snacks as means of relieving themselves from stress, boredom or unhappiness. Patterns like these need to be unraveled and overcome.

Finally, also perfectionism seems to play a role in unhealthy eating habits. Perfectionists often try to have a really perfect diet that contains only healthy foods. Once they cross the line and eat something unhealthy, they feel like having failed, and once this has happened, they end up in a downward spiral with respect to their previously healthy diet. For people like this, it can be pointed out that a single “outtake” in their diet is no drama and that they have not failed just because they ate one unhealthy item. Loosening their own standards a bit can prevent them from getting into the downward spiral.

Being conscious about patterns like ones mentioned above can help overcome them. But also employers can help their employees, for example by not selling unhealthy snacks or sweet drinks and offering healthy foods in the canteen (if there is one). But they can also make sure that there is a kitchen in which employees can prepare their own lunch (or simply warm up something they have brought from home), provide healthy drinks (such as water) or healthy snacks like fruit or yoghurt for free. They can encourage their employees to exercise. And, finally, they can keep an eye on their employees’ stress levels.

Do computers make knowledge obsolete?

Computers are becoming smarter and smarter. They can help us find our way in a city we have never been before (navigation system). They know facts we can’t remember (e.g. Wikipedia). In fact, they are so smart that they can not only beat world class chess players in a game of chess, but even the best Jeopardy players in the quiz. As a consequence, if their knowledge outdoes ours, why should we still bother to learn facts like other countries’ capitals, former presidents’ names or historical dates?

In a TED Talk, Ken Jennings, who holds the record for most consecutive wins on the classic American trivia game show, Jeopardy, remembers what it was like when super computer Watson beat him in the game. He reasons on the consequences of the recent developments. When jobs that require thinking, like for example finding law cases relevant for a certain trial or writing a newspaper article about a football game, can be done extremely well by a computer, why should we still bother to acquire knowledge?

In his talk, he explains that the downside of this development is that our brains are not challenged any more. As a result, they shrink and we become dumber. In his opinion, this is a problem because our world is increasingly complex. There is so much information that we need to be familiar with in order to make good judgment and decisions and thus master the complexity. When we don’t have the information available, will we bother looking it up? Or will we just make a (most likely not very sound) decision based on what we know? And what happens if we simply do not have the time to look something up, but need to respond to a certain situation instantly? From the examples he gives in his talk, it becomes quite evident why having knowledge in different fields available is important to survive in this world – literally!

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Our brain is more than a bag of chemicals

In the Western world, there are an increasing number of people who suffer from mental diseases. Some statistics say that about one in three people fall mentally ill once throughout their lifetime. Many of them take psychotropic drugs. However, often this medication does not help or has severe side effects. Why are mental diseases so different from diseases of the body?
In a TED Talk, biologist David Anderson from California Institute of Technology explains why. He says that we have an oversimplified image of psychiatric disorders: we consider them to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. The drugs we take changes the chemistry in the brain. They may improve the patient’s symptoms, but they have many side effects as they act in a very unspecific way. A more recent view of psychiatric diseases is that they are disorders of emotion circuit function. Certain areas of the brain are affected, but not all of them. Therefore, chemicals are important for brain functioning, but they have different effects, depending on the region of the brain. Thus, in order to study them, it is not sufficient to only look at the chemical only, but one also has to consider where the chemical is acting.

The researchers studied animals (fruit flies and mice) and their emotions in the laboratory. For doing so, they turned specific neurons in these animals on and off in order to find cause-effect-relationships: which neural circuits in combination with which neurotransmitters are responsible for which outcome?

First, they conducted an experiment to find out whether fruit flies could really experience something like emotions. They found that this was the case by exposing the fruit flies to puffs of air and observing their reactions. Second, the researchers induced a state of arousal and excitement in fruit flies that had certain genes turned on or off and found that one group needed more time to calm down from the excitement than the other. Dopamine and its receptors were involved in this process, the neurotransmitter that is linked to attention, arousal, and reward, but also to drug abuse, Parkinson Disease and ADHD. In a follow up study, they looked at two aspects of ADHD, hyperactivity and learning disability, and found that both of these aspects were located in different areas of the flies’ brains. They came to the conclusion that the same receptor controls different functions in different areas of the brain.

Thus, Professor Anderson reasons, when treating psychiatric disorders, we need to treat specific regions of the brain rather than the brain as a whole.
What does this mean? First of all, further research is needed. The researchers are working with animal models at the moment. It is likely that their findings can be applied to humans, but so far, there is no evidence for this. Maybe one day, there will be medication for mental diseases that is specific enough to treat more or less only the symptoms of the illness without having too many side effects. In the meantime, we should be aware of the fact that drugs for mental diseases have many side effects and that we should abstain from taking them when they just a “quick fix”, while there is another (maybe more effortful) way of dealing with the disease that does not involve drugs. But above and before all, we should take good care of our mental health so that we don’t become mentally ill and need psychotropic drugs. What can we do for our mental health? We have a few findings here on the scienceblog, feel free to browse the posts. We also some exercises you can do, for example the Three Blessings or meditation.