Eating our emotions
When a lot of people talk about food, we often think about diet and nutrition. But what drives our diet isn’t based on what we know about food, but how we feel about food. The term ‘having a gut feeling’ now has a lot of science behind it. We now know the gut can respond strongly to our emotional states. However, what is also interesting to know is the gut also contributes strongly to our emotional state via the bacteria inside it. Not only does gut bacteria affect the way we digest food and therefore the size of our gut, but certain bacteria have been discovered that actually improve our digestion as well as improving our emotions and are now being prescribed to treat things like depression and anxiety.
The Second Brain
The stomach often referred to as our second brain contains approximately 90% of our serotonin receptors. Serotonin is responsible for mood, appetite, weight management, sleep and wakefulness. Serotonin also plays a big part in feelings of love and emotional bonding. Chocolate has a variety of amino acids in it as well as a chemical that increases the amount of dopamine and serotonin available in the brain and body, which is why it often makes a romantic gift and why we may feel like eating it to excess, when someone hurts our feelings, we have a breakup, or we feel lonely.
How do we eat our emotions?
Not only serotonin and gut bacteria are responsible for our emotions and the foods we crave, our appetite and digestion is also influenced heavily by other hormones like insulin, testosterone, oestrogen, adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, endorphins and a whole range of other hormones and neurotransmitters that we have receptors for not only in the brain but throughout the body and especially in the digestion. These chemicals will work with or against our gut bacteria and lead us to crave certain foods, we may not need while disliking the foods our bodies do need.
How can hormones affect our appetite?
Adrenaline is a good example of emotional eating, being a neurotransmitter responsible for the fight or flight response it’s also often first felt in the stomach. With a twisting sensation, as it tells us that we should be concerned about our current situation. Due to the nature of fight or flight, the body has one thing in mind, either fighting or escaping a situation, so it doesn’t want to devote any unnecessary energy into digesting all the nutrients, proteins and fats in your stomach, as your stomach is assuming that all you need right now is sugar and carbohydrates for survival, so you can get away from that tiger or fight whoever is threatening you. However, thanks to our advanced brain, we are able to think about threats that aren’t currently present, i.e. something that may have happened in our past or something we are not looking forward to such as moving to a new house, public speaking or something else we don’t feel comfortable doing. The problem is, this means that our body can be hyper-aroused for a long period of time and we can end up craving sugars despite not needing them, because our fears are not grounded in a situation that requires a fight or flight response.
Unfortunately when our body fails to digest all the essential nutrients, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals that it needs for whatever reasons or whatever emotions you may be feeling, the body may then crave more bad foods lacking in these nutrients as ‘junk foods’ typically have high calories but lack all the nutrients that are helpful for managing our mood and anxieties.
Simply changing your diet is often not enough though, exercise has been shown to change the way our body uses insulin and other hormones like testosterone and oestrogen to lead us to crave different foods.
So what does this all mean? Changing our diet isn’t as simple as just seeing what the latest diet that ‘insert celebrity’ is doing. Because everyone not only experiences the world differently, but we all enjoy experiencing and especially in this case tasting different things. Most importantly we all have different gut bacteria and different emotions and neurotransmitters triggering our food cravings. If you don’t enjoy your diet, chances are you won’t keep it.
So what can we do?
Seeing a therapist who can help you understand your emotions and understand why and when you may feel triggered to certain foods. Trying to work out which foods probably aren’t helping with your emotions and may be making your more stressed, anxious, nervous or tired and which ones are helping. Learning about what a healthy diet for you may look like and instead of subtracting the unhealthy foods at first, learning to enjoy healthy foods and slowly introducing more fruit and vegetables into your diet and learning that maybe eating more so that your body can get the nutrients it craves might actually be healthier for you.
What else can we do?
Working with someone to learn how to manage our stress and be present with our emotions so that we don’t over think events in the past or future. Explore different hobbies or interests you think you might enjoy doing to keep yourself active or finding someone you enjoy keeping active with, as being active has a strong effect on decreasing adrenaline levels as well as encouraging the release of the feel-good chemicals endorphins, while improving our insulin sensitivity so we get more energy from the food we consume. The interesting thing is that we all know exercising helps people to lose weight, but what many of us don’t know is it does this by making our body crave different foods, improves our quality of sleep, helps us regulate our emotions, concentrate better while at the same time helping us lose weight. When body image can be one of the strongest triggers for emotional eating.
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