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Research team finds source of emotional eating; findings could help end overconsumption

Crystal Graham
teenager eating on couch
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We’ve all been there … after a stressful day at work or home, we sit on the couch and eat chips or ice cream or some other comfort food. We aren’t necessarily hungry, but the food helps us feel better.

A Virginia Tech scientist has pinpointed the reason we overeat when we are emotional, stressed or feel a threat.

Sora Shin, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, located a molecule in the brain called the hypothalamus that is connected to changes in the brain that lead to overeating.

Shin and her team described the discovery in a paper published in Nature Communications.

“We don’t always eat because we are hungry, and we have certain physical needs,” said Shin, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Whenever we get stressed or feel some threat, then it can also trigger our eating motivation. We think this molecule is the culprit.”

Shin’s team began their study by investigating a small molecule, proenkephalin. This molecule is common in multiple parts of the brain, but little research had examined its role in the hypothalamus. Shin suspected it played a role in stress and eating because the hypothalamus is a center for regulating eating behavior.

A lab experiment with mice confirmed that “something about this molecule itself is very critical to inducing overconsumption after the threat,” said Shin.

Finding the location of the molecule “is a good starting point,” said Shin.

The discovery points toward a possible target for therapy to alleviate emotionally triggered eating.

Shin’s research is supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Seale Innovation Fund and the integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia.


Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.