Estrogen has dramatic influences over appetite that can be seen during various stages of the menstrual cycle, yet not all women experience changes in appetite and tendencies for emotional eating with fluctuating estrogen levels. In this article we explore the relationship between ovarian hormones, stress and specific genetic predispositions and their influence on emotional eating.
Ovarian hormones fluctuate during the menstrual cycle and are linked to changes in food consumption, cravings and tendencies for emotional eating. Typically, food intake decreases with increasing estrogen levels during the follicular phase. As progesterone rises during the mid-luteal phase, it inhibits the effects of estrogen on appetite, leading to an increase in calorie consumption. Studies show that when both estradiol and progesterone levels are high rates of binge eating and emotional eating significantly increase. (1) Stress intensifies this effect further, as women under chronic stress who binge eat rate foods as more palatable and have a higher desire to binge eat. (1) In addition, as premenstrual estrogen starts to drop, it alters neurotransmitters levels, including dopamine and serotonin, which further influence impulsivity and food cravings, respectively. However, not all women report binge or emotional eating, so there must be other factors that predispose ones tendency. Family studies reveal genetic predispositions toward binge and emotional eating contribute to their onset and may be a missing link in this dynamic.
Genes that influence hormones, neurotransmitters, satiety, and food preferences interact to alter appetite and tendency for emotional eating. These genes include COMT, FTO, and CD36.
- The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene alters dopaminergic signaling. The val/val (G/G) variant leads to greater enzymatic activity, higher degradation of dopamine and lower endogenous dopaminergic concentration, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. Those with the G variant tend to have greater impulsivity and higher reward seeking behaviours, including food. In addition, G/G individuals desire more unhealthy foods versus the met/met (A/A) individuals. (2)
- The fat mass and obesity (FTO) gene produces a protein that is found in areas of the brain that regulate appetite and play a crucial role in regulating body mass and composition. The A allele of the FTO gene increases likelihood of weight gain due to a reduction in satiety. This leads to individuals to consume larger amount of food (typically 250-350kcal/d), with preferences towards foods high in fat and sugar. Studies within those with a history of eating disorder, show an increase in binge eating and higher tendencies for emotional eating in those with the A/A genotype. (3)
- The CD36 gene regulates fatty acid uptake from the blood into cells and fatty acid metabolism. Variations (A/A) affects the preference for consuming fats.
The tendency for emotional eating is an interplay between genetics that increase susceptibility to binge and emotional eating, sense of satiety and preferences for food, as well as menstrual hormonal fluctuations and environmental triggers, such as chronic stress. Knowing ones genetic predispositions can not only help to explain the occurrence, but direct treatment.
Strategies to Reduce emotional eating
- Improve sleep – Sleep deprivation increases food desirability for highly palatable foods
- Regular meal timing – the respective relationships between FTO and COMT genotype status and binge eating, and food desirability may be exacerbated in those who are hungry.
- Improve dopamine signaling through mindful eating – Enhance the dopaminergic response to eating by preparing foods, eating fresh, aromatic foods that stimulate the pre-digestive phase of eating. Practice mindfulness while eating to provide time for feedback signalling to the brain to encourage satiety.
- Exercise – regular exercise abolishes the effect of the FTO gene
- Increase protein intake and consider EGCG or quercetin supplementation to moderate the effect of the COMT G/G genotype.
- Tolcapone is a drug that helps individuals with overconsumption eating disorders, particularly in individuals with the COMT G/G genotype. COMT inhibition with tolcapone treatment modulates dopamine in the anticipation and consumption of food and may be helpful with those who do not respond to behavioural modifications as mentioned above.
Cards to Review on the LMH Panel
- Preference for Dietary Fat
- Regulation of Appetite and Food
- Estrogen (Estrogen – Methylation on PRO panel)
- Cognitive Performance and Stress Resilience
- Fowler, N., Vo, P. T., Sisk, C. L. & Klump, K. L. Stress as a potential moderator of ovarian hormone influences on binge eating in women. F1000Res 8, F1000 Faculty Rev-222 (2019).
- Wallace, D. L. et al. Genotype status of the dopamine-related catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene corresponds with desirability of “unhealthy” foods. Appetite 92, 74–80 (2015).
- Castellini, G. et al. Fat mass and obesity-associated gene (FTO) is associated to eating disorders susceptibility and moderates the expression of psychopathological traits. PLoS One 12, (2017).
- Jacobs, E. & D’Esposito, M. Estrogen Shapes Dopamine-Dependent Cognitive Processes: Implications for Women’s Health. Neurosci. 31, 5286–5293 (2011).
Dr. Robyn Murphy, ND
Scientific Advisory Board Member