Weight Loss Program, Part 5: Cravings, Overeating & The Brain Connection

Friday, October 27, 2006 - 10:00am

Read the following pages/chapters in your text, Dieting For Dummies this week: Chapter 6-7, pages 55-81


Do you often feel a powerful drive to overeat or to eat excessive quantities of foods you know aren't good for you? Do you ever wonder what causes these compelling urges? Do you feel guilty about your inability to control them? Wouldn't it be nice to know that there might be a biological reason behind what you feel and that you're not just going crazy? In Part Five, you'll learn about the basics of your wonderfully complex brain and its transmitters that control your appetite. These very powerful chemicals often can be the reason behind our lack of "willpower." You'll learn to turn off the drive to overeat by giving your brain the pleasure and balance it seeks in ways other than eating. You'll learn how certain emotions and stressors in life affect the chemical balance in your brain. You'll also learn how to satisfy your emotions and relieve stress through means much more effective and satisfying than overeating.

Topic outline for Part Five:

Brain Biology 101 - what makes you tick

Are you ever disgusted with your eating habits? Do you ever wish you had more willpower? What if I told you that, biologically, willpower doesn't exist? Would that make you feel better? Perhaps you need a better understanding of what really makes you tick and makes you cave into the strong desire to overeat and crave certain unhealthy foods.

First, you need to understand the things that happen in the brain. At any given second, there are more than 100,000 chemical reactions happening in your brain. Your brain's communication with your nerve cells is the basis behind everything you think, feel, and do. Your brain sends signals to nerves throughout your body through messengers called neurotransmitters. Many neurotransmitters regulate the way that you feel throughout the day. Some cause increased alertness, while others cause more calming effects.

You might not realize that what you eat can affect the formation of many of these neurotransmitters. Some diet-related neurotransmitters can have a significant effect on our mood, our appetite and our cravings. Before discussing the neurotransmitters that affect your appetite, you must understand the following things:

  • Your brain is constantly trying to achieve balance - this also applies to your mood. For instance, if you're overly stressed, the brain wants to achieve balance by making you do something that will release neurotransmitters that bring about more calmness and relaxation. For some people this stress release comes through anger, “road rage”, drinking alcohol, watching TV, exercising, or overeating.

  • The drive to achieve pleasure, or to make you do things that bring you and your brain emotional balance, can be difficult, if not impossible, to override, especially in “addictive” types of personalities. Your brain will continue to bug you to seek things that bring about pleasure and balance until it feels sufficiently satisfied during times of stress or emotional swings. Imaginary “willpower”, is often no match for your brain's desire for balance and pleasure when you're under stress or emotional distress.
  • Our brain quickly learns what we do to give it pleasure or balance. We, in turn, often have the "knee-jerk" reaction to do the quickest and easiest thing that will help achieve this pleasure and balance whenever our brains call on us. Often it is overeating. How a food smells, what it looks and tastes like, and its texture can all excite chemicals within the brain that lead to intense pleasure, stress release, calming and emotional satisfaction. It's like Pavlov's dog. Whatever our brain quickly learns will give us quick and instantaneous gratification and pleasure is what we will continually do over and over again.
  • You can do many things other than to overeat or succumb to poor habits to give your brain balance and pleasure when it calls on you. You'll learn about these later.

Appetite and mood regulators in the brain - seretonin, endorphins and dopamine

The study of food, appetite, and neurotransmitters is still in its infancy as far as research goes. But many strong connections between what we eat and the effects of different foods on our mood have emerged. Serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine are three neurotransmitters in the brain that have a strong connection to the foods you eat, your cravings, and your mood. Let's discuss each of them, their functions, and the foods that can alter their production.

1.   Serotonin - what does it do?

Serotonin is probably the most heavily researched appetite regulating neurotransmitter.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which, when released, brings about feelings of calm, happiness, peace, and satisfaction. Sufficient amounts of circulating serotonin also signal feelings of fullness and reduced appetite. For example, the weight loss drugs Redux and Fenfluramine (the fen part of phen-fen) enhanced circulation of serotonin in the brain in order to create greater and longer feelings of fullness. Low levels of serotonin are linked with depression and increased appetite. Many anti-depressants work by increasing availability of circulating serotonin in the brain. Serotonin, in short, is a very powerful mood enhancer and appetite regulator.

Dietary influences on serotonin

It's probably no coincidence that when you're stressed or blue you might turn to sweets, baked goods, desserts, and other sugary carbohydrates to help you out. Carbohydrate rich foods increase brain concentrations of an amino acid called tryptophan, which is the building block for serotonin. In other words, eating carbohydrates can often lead to feelings of calmness, peace, and satisfaction by enhancing the production of serotonin in the brain. Instant stress relief!

But, eating sugary carbohydrates, instead of complex carbohydrates, can actually have a rebound effect. You might feel good immediately after eating them because they lead to an instant high and an energy boost. But, shortly after that, your insulin levels and energy level drop, which can actually cause a rebound depression, or "sugar low." This can, in turn, stimulate more sugary carbohydrate cravings to get back to the initial "sugar high." It is a truly vicious cycle. And of course, eating does not really combat stress in a long-term or effective way. Chances are, if you overeat, you often feel more guilty than relaxed!

2.   Endorphins - what do they do?

Endorphins are very powerful natural opiates in the brain that produce feelings of intense pleasure. They can also reduce and relieve pain. You might have heard the term "runner's high." This has to do with the release of feel-good endorphins after a long run or exercise session.

Dietary influences on endorphins

Some research postulates that sugar/fat combinations can lead to enhanced production of blues-busting endorphins. You might crave foods, such as chocolate, precisely because of its high fat/high sugar content. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, an endorphin releasing substance. But, any food with a high sugar and fat content such as doughnuts, baked goods, ice cream, and others can increase endorphin and serotonin levels. That's quite an irresistible combination, especially when you feel blue or stressed and seek a quick "high” or mood lift.

3.   Dopamine - what is it?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that can cause increased mental alertness and awareness. Some research suggests that a high-protein diet can enhance dopamine production. Since there are fewer reports of cravings and binges associated with high protein foods, such as meats, cheeses, or seafood, than with high carbohydrate foods, we won't discuss dopamine extensively. A high protein diet can suppress serotonin levels, which might lead to decreased feelings of calmness and relaxation. A high protein diet may also enhance mental alertness.

Cravings, overeating & emotions - the brain chemistry connection:

Interestingly, things occur every day that can cause significant changes and shifts in the brain chemicals previously mentioned. Many of these moods, emotions, and biological occurrences affect our cravings for foods. Remember, the brain seeks balance. It does not want to feel stressed, blue, or guilty. It immediately looks for pleasure and balance from the things that you have trained it to seek when negative emotions and stressors surface. Oftentimes we are not even aware of our emotions or stressors, or that we are eating in response to moods and emotions until we make a habit of becoming in tune with how we really feel.

Some everyday factors can affect your brain chemistry and your cravings:

  • Stress, fear, anger, and anxiety can increase a transmitter called neuropeptide Y. This neurotransmitter can significantly increase carbohydrate cravings.

  • Stress is also associated with low serotonin levels, which can also lead to carbohydrate cravings to boost serotonin.
  • Depression and the blues are associated with suppressed serotonin levels. Feeling down can affect your desire for carbohydrates to boost these levels.
  • Feelings of guilt and low self-esteem have a strong connection to increased cravings. Low self-esteem is associated with low serotonin levels.

Non-emotional factors related to depressed serotonin levels:

  • PMS - When estrogen levels drop and progesterone levels increase (as is the case during PMS) serotonin levels can drop. Therefore, there's a true biological reason behind those chocolate cravings during a certain time of the month.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder - The amount of light you are exposed to each day affects serotonin levels. Those who live in areas that have little daylight often report increased feelings of depression and increased cravings for carbohydrates. Many people also report these feelings during the winter months and weight gain when there is less daylight. Lack of exposure to light can depress serotonin levels.
  • High protein diets - Excessive protein in the diet suppresses serotonin levels. Many people following high protein diets report a decreased ability to feel calm and relaxed and an increased craving for carbohydrates.

In short, during certain times of the year or month, or when we experience difficult emotions and stress, many go through the following cycle:

  • Stress, emotional swings (or other factor above
  • Depressed serotonin levels
  • Brain seeks balance (wants to be calm)
  • Eat high carbohydrate or high carbohydrate/high fat foods
  • Raise endorphins and serotonin
  • Feel sedated, relaxed and even "high"
  • Sugary foods lead to only a quick, temporary increase in energy
  • Eventually, blood sugar levels drop, energy drops, “sugar low” feelings set in
  • More cravings for carbohydrates and fats to make you feel calm and relaxed again

Your brain also quickly learns this pattern. You have trained it to realize that when you have any multitude of feelings, like stress, depression, or anger, eating certain foods will help “numb out” those feelings by releasing powerful mood altering neurotransmitters. It will continue to re-seek that which you have trained it to provide stress relief, and emotional relief.

Conquer your emotions and stress effectively - without overeating

Stress, the blues, fears, and guilt are a normal part of life. Chances are, we can't fully rid ourselves of these unpleasant feelings, but we can learn to deal with them more effectively. Our objective reasoning can tell us that eating unhealthy foods isn't solving our stress or emotional problems. But, that line of thinking doesn't come in very handy when our brain is screaming, "Eat, eat, I want to be calm."

However, just as you trained your brain that eating certain foods can lead to greater feelings of calm and relaxation (albeit temporarily), you can instead train it to seek other sources of pleasure that also increase these mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. Unlike overeating, these alternative sources of pleasure will lead to a healthier lifestyle as well.

Some people can simply recognize the problem and decide not to eat, that is, to "ride out the urge." But, for many, that is only a temporary and usually, not an effective long-term solution. If I said it before, I'll say it a million times: your brain will continually prompt you to find something to give it balance and pleasure when facing stressful and emotional situations. It is difficult to ignore these urges consistently. But, what you can do is replace one pleasure (eating) with another pleasure to effectively satisfy your urges.

It can take some time, but eventually, you might begin to crave that long run to increase your endorphins instead of a piece of chocolate cake. It's all a matter of retraining your brain.

Generally speaking, anything that brings you personal pleasure, inspiration, or a sense of well-being without harming your health is the thing you should act on when food cravings and the drive to overeat set in. In this week's exercise, you'll learn more about what inspires you and makes you feel good. You might also consider the following things that may be helpful to you when your brain seeks pleasure and stress relief:

  • Exercise - yet another reason to do it. It increases endorphin levels and relieves stress. You'll feel inspired and good about yourself, and you'll naturally decrease your food cravings.

  • Get a massage - it may help relieve anxiety, depression and sleep problems.
  • Read biographies of people who inspire you - learn from their positive influence and behavior.
  • Meditate - Repeat a positive word, phrase or prayer. It minimizes distracting, negative thoughts and relieves stress.
  • Use guided imagery - Go to your favorite place for 10-15 minutes with your eyes closed. It might be the mountains or the beach. Imagine everything you're seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling.
  • Listen to relaxing music – studies have shown this can decrease the production of a substance called cortisol. Cortisol can lead to carbohydrate cravings. Music can also increase relaxation, relieve stress, and provide more clarity and vigor.
  • Take a bath with aromatherapy. Oils of citronella, eucalyptus, sage, lavender, and chamomile added to a bath can relax you.
  • Laugh - see a comedy show, or engage in activities that bring humor to your life. Seek ways to have more positive emotions in your life. Finding the positive always overrides the negative.
  • Get a pet and love it- studies show that pets add a sense of unconditional love to our lives and can reduce blood pressure and stress.
  • Find a passion - maybe it's photography, art, ceramics, or football. Find something that inspires you and commit to get out there and do it.
  • Buy flowers, plant flowers, or nurture a garden.
  • Journal your feelings or talk to someone you can trust.
  • Add more spirituality to your life or pray.
  • Get in touch with an old friend you enjoy.
  • Re-acquaint yourself with your spouse or children. Plan a fun group activity together and do it.
  • Sign up for a class you've always wanted to take.
  • Go through old photo albums and scrapbooks - recall happy times and make plans for new ventures.
  • Treat yourself to a gift, e.g., a book, a magazine, clothing, a manicure.
  • Take 10 minutes and visualize the way you will look, the way you'll feel, the way you'll act, the way your clothes will fit, and the way people will react to you after you achieve your healthy weight.
  • Help others - sometimes there's no better way to feel better about you than to help others in need. Get involved in your community or a local organization that serves a purpose that's important to you.

If nothing else can get rid of a craving for you, try reading these words again and again: Food has never solved my problems in the past, and it won't solve them now. Food won't give me better coping skills or add harmony to my life. I have all the power I need to make healthy changes in my life. I have the power to find good solutions to the problems and stressors I face. I won't ever give that power to food.

The techniques above are not intended to address serious emotional issues that require professional help and counseling. In addition, if you feel that you have a problem with binge eating disorder, anorexia or bulimia, seek help from your physician, psychologist or mental health counselor.

Modify your eating habits to manage your cravings

Some people report decreased cravings and less drive to overeat when they modify their diet in the following ways. You can try some of these techniques and see if any work for you:

  • Eat breakfast to improve alertness, performance, and mood to start your day off right and avoid overeating at lunch or dinner.

  • Eat small snacks throughout the day instead of large meals and eat only when you are physically hungry.
  • Become familiar with your body's signals. Don't eat just because it's mealtime. Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're satisfied, not stuffed.
  • Have high protein foods and high carbohydrate foods together at meal times to keep blood sugar levels normalized.
  • Satisfy your carbohydrate cravings with complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread, low fat crackers, low fat popcorn, whole grain cereals, beans, or whole grain pastas and brown rice. Your body absorbs complex carbohydrates more slowly than sugars and thus, they will bring you up and ease you down more gently.
  • Eat more high fiber foods to feel full longer and minimize hunger.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Do not significantly restrict fat or carbohydrates or go on a starvation diet. Your body requires all the nutrients a balanced diet provides to function optimally.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol in the diet since it is a depressant. It might make you depressed, which in turn, might stimulate carbohydrate cravings to make you relaxed, and happier again.

Next: Activities and Exercises For Part Five

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