HealthQuest with Dr. David Kolbaba

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Stress changes our eating habits, but the mechanism may not be purely psychological, research in mice suggests.

A study published May 30 in Cell Metabolism found that stress mouse mothers were more likely to give birth to pups that would go on to exhibit binge-eating like behavior later in life.

The female mouse pups from stressed mothers shared epigenetic tags on the DNA, but these epigenetic markers only made a difference when the researchers put the young offspring into a stressful situation.

Furthermore, the researchers were able to prevent their binge eating by putting the young mice on a diet with "balanced" levels of nutrients such as Vitamin B 12 and folate.

Previous studies have found an epidemiological link between binge eating and traumatic or stressful events during early life, but untangling the biology behind that correlation has proved difficult. "Here we established a model where we can actually show that early life stress increases the likelihood of binge eating in females," says senior co-author Alon Chen, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany. "The second thing that is really interesting is that prenatal stress is causing an epigenetic signature in the embryo's brain," says Mariana Schroeder, the postdoctoral fellow that led this study.

Chen hopes that this work will help researchers understand the neurobiology behind eating disorders. "The general public is less aware of the fact that we are dealing with very biological mechanism that changes a person. People say, 'Oh, it's only in the brain.' And yes, it's in the brain. It involves changes in your genes, in your epigenome, and your brain circuits."

All of this underscores the importance of avoiding stressful situations as much as possible during pregnancy. "We all know this, but people ignore it for various social or economic reason," says Chen. "But the price we pay later in life-whether it's psychiatric disorders, metabolic syndromes, or heart-related illnesses-is heavily impacted by the way your brain was programmed early in life.

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