Controlling the Chemistry of Emotional Eating
Learning the science behind cravings is the first step toward controlling them
Our ancestors ate to survive. They ate because they were hungry, or maybe to celebrate a victory over a warring tribe. Us? We eat because we're angry, bored, stressed, frustrated, depressed, watching a movie, too busy, not busy enough, getting together with friends, or ticked off because the Lions lost.
And when eating is the result of an emotional reaction -- where we substitute chocolate for a conversation, ice cream for a relaxing bath, or chips for a punching bag -- it isn't as much about character as it is about chemistry.
Brain chemicals not only influence your emotions but also provide the foundation for why you eat at certain times. Here are a few examples:
- Norepinephrine: This is the caveman fight-or-flight chemical. It's what tells you to tangle with a saber-toothed tiger or hightail it to the safety of your hut.
- Serotonin: This is the James Brown of neurotransmitters. It makes you feel good (Hey!) and is a major target of antidepressants.
- Dopamine: This is the brain's fun house. It's a pleasure and reward system and is particularly sensitive to addictions. It's also the one that helps you feel no pain.
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid): This one is the English Patient of amino acids. It makes you feel like a zombie and is one of the ways that anesthesia may work to reduce your responsiveness to the outside world.
- Nitric oxide: This is your meditation-like chemical. It helps calm you. This powerful neuropeptide is usually a very short-lived gas that also relaxes the blood vessels of the body.
Now, the real question is what do all these chemicals have to do with whether you snack on a Hershey bar or a plum? Read on.
The Brain Chemical/Food Relationship
Let's use serotonin as an example of this relationship. Picture your brain as a small pinball machine. You have millions of neurotransmitters that are sending messages to and from one another. When your serotonin transmitters fire the signals, they send the message throughout your brain that you feel good; this message is strongest when that feel-good pinball is frenetically bouncing around in your brain, racking up tons of yeah-baby points along the way.
But when you lose the ball down the chute (that is, when cells in the brain take the serotonin and break it down), that love-the-world feeling you've just been experiencing is lost. So what does your brain want to do? Put another quarter in the machine and get another ball. For many of us, the next ball comes in the form of foods that naturally (and quickly) make us feel good and counteract the drop in serotonin that we're feeling.
An example? Sugar. A rush can come with a jolt of sugar. Sugar stimulates the release of serotonin. Insulin stimulates serotonin production in the brain, which, in turn, boosts your mood, makes you feel better, or masks the stress, pain, boredom, anger, or frustration that you may be feeling.
And serotonin is only one ball in play. You have all of these other chemicals fighting to send your appetite and cravings from bumper to bumper.
Knowing how your emotions can steer your desire to eat will help you resist your cravings and, ideally, avoid them altogether. Your goal: Keep your feel-good hormones level, so you're in a steady state of satisfaction and never experience huge hormonal highs and lows that make you search for good-for-your-brain-but-bad-for-your-waist foods.
Here are three tricks to try:
1. Use foods to your advantage. All foods have different effects on your stomach, your blood, and your brain. Choose turkey to cut carb cravings. Turkey contains tryptophan, which increases serotonin to improve your mood and combat depression and helps you resist cravings for simple carbs. Choose salmon to curb blue moods. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in certain fish (including salmon, canned tuna, halibut, and mahimahi), have long been known as brain boosters and cholesterol clearers, but they've also convincingly been shown to help with depression in pregnant women. Depression contributes to hedonistic and emotional eating.
2. Savor the flavor. If you're going to eat something that's bad for you, enjoy it, savor it, roll it around in your mouth. We suggest taking a piece of dark (70% cocoa) chocolate and meditating -- as a healthy stress reliever and as a way to reward yourself with something sweet. It's OK to eat bad foods -- every once in a while.
3. Go to sleep. Getting enough sleep can help with appetite control. That's because when your body doesn't get the 7 to 8 hours of sleep it needs every night to get rejuvenated, it has to find ways to compensate for neurons not secreting the normal amounts of serotonin or dopamine. It typically does that by craving sugary foods that will give you an immediate release of serotonin and dopamine.