The biochemistry of emotional eating. And 4 steps to changing it.
We all know that we’re more likely to gorge on ice cream or crisps or cake when we’re feeling unhappy, angry or stressed … but why? And what can we do about it?
It’s all to do with the mind-body connection, a connection that exists via a chain of biochemical reactions that literally moves the mood from your brain down into your body.
Your emotions start in your right brain. That’s where you get the initial emotional reaction when something triggers an emotional reaction in you. This might be getting a bill you can’t pay or struggling to deal with a difficult colleague at work.
Those emotions then move from your right brain into your hypothalamus. This is the area of your brain that regulates the release of your hormones, regulates body temperature, maintains daily physiological cycles, manages sexual behaviour, regulates emotional responses. And, importantly, controls your appetite.
From your hypothalamus, your emotions move to the pituitary gland; a gland attached to your hypothalamus at the base of your brain. The pituitary gland is responsible for the production of many of your hormones. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to produce a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH triggers the adrenal gland to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol also being a hormone that makes you want to eat even more, and which creates inflammation in the body with all the health consequences that come with it.
Why does this matter?
It matters because when we’re trying to change our diets we’re often focused on the food. And so if we focus on the mood, the food takes care of itself. But very few of us know how to transform our mood. If you're anything like me, my 'go to' strategy of choice was to stuff the challenging emotions down with food!
I believe that the future of healthy eating will focus on learning to manage our emotions, so that we can stop this biochemical cascade in our bodies from starting in the first place … helping to give us back our power to consciously control our food choices.
Now, we can’t stop the bills from arriving or control who we work with. And we can’t stop our innate human emotional responses. Our power lies in how we deal with our emotional response when it happens. By dealing with our emotions in our frontal lobe instead of allowing them to flow into our body via our limbic system, we can stop this biochemical reaction from taking place.
Here are 4 steps for how to do this:
Step 1: Stop for a moment. And then name your emotion. What are you feeling? Using words to describe your emotion helps to move the emotion from the limbic system in your brain to the frontal lobe which is the part of the brain responsible for emotional expression.
Step 2: Ask yourself “What is the message that this emotion is carrying?” The frontal lobe is also where we solve problems. Our emotions are not just random feelings that pop up every now and again … they are a core part of our innate emotional intelligence. As such, they are signals that we need to pay attention to. They are here to protect us and guide us. Are you feeling angry? Perhaps your boundaries have been violated. Are you feeling frustrated? Perhaps you have conflicting needs. An emotion with a message doesn’t go away … listen to it. Writing in a journal or notebook can help with processing this step.
Step 3: Take action. Again, our frontal lobes are where we communicate and make decisions based on logic and reasoning. Decide what constructive action you can take to address the message that the emotion is carrying. This might be as simple as expressing yourself. Or it may be that there are some changes that you need to make in your life. These might not happen straight away, but know that you are taking constructive action to respond to your needs can be enough to prevent the emotion being carried into your body.
Step 4: Build resilience. We cannot override our emotions, but we can build resilience. Feeling low on an ongoing basis is a sign of too much anger and sadness, and not enough love and joy. It’s also a sign that your self-talk is not supporting you. Investing the time and energy in experiences that bring more love and joy into our lives is not a ‘nice to have’; it’s a vitally important part of maintaining strong mental health and emotional resilience. We all need to feel connection, and a sense of belonging and happiness. And consider how kindly do you speak to yourself? How empowering is your self-talk? Practice new supportive thoughts more often to transform your internal emotional experience.
So, if we can’t understand and express an emotion, and respond to it, the emotion goes down into the body via a biochemical reaction that results in longer-term mood changes, inflammation in the body, and increased hunger. Consciously taking the steps to move the emotion into the frontal lobe empowers you to avoid the chain reaction that leads to a low mood and emotional eating.
If you’d like to learn more about how to manage your emotions, I’d love for you to join me in my free Facebook group “Happiness” at the link here.