Its all in the mind

When somebody is diagnosed with a condition related to excess weight, they are almost invariably told to eat less and exercise more!

While it is true that if you take in more energy than you expend the excess will be stored as fat, this does not address the underlying real problem!

Other mammals living, in the wild, do not get fat! And neither should we. Our bodies have sophisticated feedback systems that should ensure we neither over nor under eat. Clearly, if we gain too much weight these systems are not functioning properly.

Unless we identify and resolve the underlying cause the problem will keep returning.

What causes the systems to fail?

The body is complex so inevitably the answer is complex but as with most complexity, there is an underlying simplicity – if we understand the problem.

The body's systems rely on hormones to drive behaviour, both the body as a whole and to coordinate different organs. There are two particular hormones, ghrelin and leptin that control hunger and the feeling of having eaten enough. If these were the only two that impacted on our eating behaviour, there would not be a problem.

Unfortunately, eating is influenced by other hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and cortisol. The first two are associated with pleasure while the last, with stress. The very taste of food can stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine and the fact that eating is often a social activity will stimulate their production.

When we are under stress, we produce cortisol. One of the things cortisol does is encourage the body to lay down fat and reduce energy expenditure – it is preparing us to face hardship. We are driven to want to eat more and avoid non-essential exercise. Added to which the business of eating distracts us from thinking about the reasons we are feeling stressed.

The result is that the body can quickly condition the brain want to eat more and exercise less. And since food is easily available in our modern society it all too easy for us to turn to it to simply to make us feel good.

The Good News

We need not be slaves to these hormones. This flow of hormones from body to mind is not a one-way street. It is easy for the mind not only to overcome the undesirable impulses they can create but to drive their production and use them to produce good behaviour.

We can make a positive decision to produce the hormones that make us feel happy just by thinking the right way. If you set your mind to recall a time when you felt really happy and then reflect with gratitude on that experience it will start to lift your mood.

And there are ways to reinforce those feelings

Our posture, facial expression and breathing all impact on the production of hormones.

British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate

Would you like to feel happier right now?

Let’s do a small experiment. Think of something that made you really happy, preferably involving close friends or family. Now recognise how grateful you feel for having the experience. Stand up, put your shoulders back, lift your head up, stand tall and relax the shoulders. Relax your facial muscles and smile.

Finally, take some gentle deep breaths.

Almost everyone will feel happier as a result of this exercise which has taken less than a minute.

What has his done to your body

Your heart rate will be lower, blood pressure will have dropped, you will be feeling calmer, the production of cortisol will have dropped while endorphins, serotonin and dopamine will have increased. If you were suffering pain the feelings from that will reduce as a result of the increases endorphins….

….I could go on.

So what’s the point?

You have reduced the desire for food and increased the amount of energy you feel you have. Actually, that was true until I mentioned food. If you had been feeling like eating before the mere mention of food made you want it again.

Which is one of the reasons diets don’t work – dieting puts food at the forefront of your mind, and you end up permanently stressed by the need to resist the impulse this is generating in your brain – more cortisol.

I lied at the start of this article

Some mammals do get fat.

Bears are a classic example. At the end of summer and in autumn as the berries begin to ripen, they will gorge themselves on these delightful sweet treats that are only available at this time of year. They will get fat – ready for the long hibernation when they won’t eat. And they will wake up slim in the spring.

A sweet tooth can be quite useful, but not when you can buy a stack of chocolate for a few pence at any time of year.