Archive for December, 2011

The Mind-Body Connection: How it Relates to Our Eating Behaviors

December 31, 2011

 Blog # 40

(Much of the following first paragraph is excerpted from the December 29, 2011 obituary of Dr. Robert Ader, written by Paul Vitello and published in The New York Times.)

Dr. Ader was an experimental psychologist who was among the first scientists to show how mental processes influence the body’s immune system, a seminal discovery that changed modern medicine.  You might say that he was the father of the “mind-body” connection.  His research was a touchstone for studies that have shown the communication network among immune cells, hormones, and neurotransmitters.  This field—psychoneuroimmunology—provides the science behind notions too often considered “magical thinking”:  that meditation helps reduce arterial plaque; that social bonds improve cancer survival; that people under stress catch more colds; and that placebos work not only on the human mind, but also on cells themselves.  Dr. Ader demonstrated that stress worsens illnesses, sometimes even setting them off, and that stress reduction is essential to health care.  To summarize Dr. Ader’s work in one phrase: Stop worrying or you’ll make yourself sick.

The fact that mental processes affect the immune system, hormones, and neurotransmitters has a profound influence on our eating behaviors.  An understanding of our mind-body relationship is fundamental in the effort to conquer eating issues.

Carly, age 40: “When I am stressed or have things on my mind or I am really tired, I eat sweets, like cakes and cookies. I don’t even give it any thought. I feel bad after and think about eating better or exercising, but I don’t act on these thoughts.”

Although it is convenient to think of our minds and bodies as separate and discrete entities, our emotional and cognitive sides do not exist independently of our flesh and physical beings. Our minds and bodies are very much commingled, and our mind-body connection is extensive. Our bodies house our minds, and our minds control our bodies, but our minds are made of matter just as our bodies are, and our bodies have a vast array of neural networks running through them that essentially are peripheral extensions of our minds. When our minds are unhealthy, often our bodies become unhealthy, and vice-versa. Optimal human functioning and performance requires a coordinated and harmonious relationship between our minds and bodies.

The following are a few examples of the mind-body connection:

When you become embarrassed your cheeks get a crimson flush.

When you are driving and the car in front of you comes to a sudden and unexpected stop, you respond by slamming on your brakes and just miss a rear-ending collision, your heart races, your pupils dilate and your breathing pattern is rapid and deep. 

When you are fatigued after a hard day of work but can muster up the fortitude for a workout, you can emerge physically and emotionally invigorated, stress relieved, fatigue washed away—refreshed with a wonderful feeling of well-being.

The above examples show how our minds can affect our bodies—blood flowing to our face in the blush response and the classic physiological stress response; and how the body can affect the mind—physical exercise transforming an emotional state. The essence of the mind-body connection is that our thoughts, feelings and emotions can affect our body chemistries and cause a physical response, and conversely, our physical actions, like exercise or laughter, can influence our brain chemistries and affect our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

How is the mind-body connection relevant to eating?

We are highly emotional creatures and it these feelings that are one of the key features that separate us from other members of the animal kingdom. We bring our emotions to every situation, and on a certain level we are all emotional eaters since we all bring our emotions “to the table” in this sense. It is impossible to separate emotions from eating and, with this in mind, it becomes easier to understand how our emotions can cause unhealthy eating patterns.

There are wide ranges of emotions that can trigger eating. Exhaustion, stress, boredom, anxiety, anger, loneliness, sadness, depression, frustration, resentment, disappointment, issues of self-esteem, and interpersonal conflicts are some of the negative emotions that can drive eating. Positive emotions including hopefulness, happiness and confidence can also spark emotional eating. In general, it appears that negative emotions demand neutralizing and positive emotions fuel our passion for eating. There are many among us who use food as a refuge from negative emotions, and for whom food serves as both a “friend” and “therapist”; however, there are certainly, some of us who turn off from eating under the same circumstances. Thus, there is a wide range of eating responses to emotions and all of us “metabolize” our feelings differently.

Stress seems to be our most compelling emotional drive to eat, second only to hunger as a motivation to eat. It is the rare person who does not lead a stressful existence. Stress seems to pummel our souls and eating serves as a mechanism to sooth our beaten-up inner beings— a means of distracting us from our troubles and escaping from the real-life problems and unpleasant aspects of our daily lives.  Life can oftentimes be very tough and food can provide an immediate source of comfort and relief, just as a cigarette can to a smoker or alcohol to a drinker. Many of us, particularly after a very stressful day, head straight for the refrigerator after arriving home from work, seeking solace, refuge and sanctuary.

Interestingly, it seems that when we eat for negative emotional reasons we tend to gravitate to unhealthy foods—it would appear that we desire the kind of foods that will match the emotion driving the eating. Self-destructive emotions beg for self-destructive eating behaviors and self-destructive foods.

In accordance with the work of Dr. Ader, there is a biochemical explanation for stress eating. The adrenal gland hormone cortisol—released in response to stress—can stimulate our appetites and cravings for sugar.  This is the very reason people on corticosteroid medications tend to have enormous appetites, gain weight, and have a tendency for obesity. Cortisol also functions to reduce the satiety hormone leptin, further stimulating our appetites. Additionally, the consumption of certain foods, especially those containing sugar and fat, can cause release of endorphins that are powerful morphine-like chemicals with pain-relieving properties. Is it any wonder that food serves a role as a sedative?  It is of great interest to note that exercise can also release large amounts of these endorphins, so better to head to the gym than the fridge when stressed!

In summary, our emotional state—in a constant state of flux—affects our neurotransmitters, hormones and immune cells.  The variable state of our internal biochemical environment that occurs in response to our emotional state is capable of profoundly influencing our behaviors, including eating. In spite of the biochemical imperative to eat driven by certain emotions, understanding the influence of the mind-body connection is one of the first steps towards overcoming unhealthy eating patterns.

A healthy and sunny 2012 to all!

Andrew Siegel, M.D. for more info on my book: Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship With Food