What’s the Brain-Stomach Link?
This month, you’ll get the science behind eating (and overeating). After all, summer is coming up and health takes on a whole new meaning.
If you know me, you know I am skinny as a rail. But, while I might make it look easy, it’s NOT! I watch carefully what I eat. I rarely eat desserts. I eat no artificial sweeteners, no artificial colorings, and rarely any preservatives in my food. Plus, I work out 5-6 days a week. I weigh myself once every week or two.
I eat “good fats” (avocado, coconut oil, etc.) every day, I am careful about blasting high heat on my proteins, and I snack smartly. On top of that, I go out of my way to avoid so called “natural sweeteners” like high fructose corn syrup. But I haven’t told you the most shocking thing yet ….
What’s the most shocking food thing I do? Once a week or so, I DO eat like a pig (though it is pretty random). Sometimes it’s a “pizza night” or we just go out and splurge. Why? This way I never feel like I am always having to eat “right.” It’s freedom!
The question is…”How can I get away with it?” One, genes do play a part. Two, I eat great foods 90%+ of the time, so I can afford to splurge. But, the real reason my eating works is in the next few paragraphs.
PART ONE: Research
In fact, I’ll show you what can you do to get and keep your waistline where you want it. But first, you should know the science behind all the weight gains that many adults experience.
Let’s start with the stomach and brain connection.
The signaling between the brain and the stomach is extensive. How you perceive lifehas a direct effect on the stomach. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. You may have had a “gut-wrenching” experience or felt nauseous or had the “butterflies” in your stomach.
These are often a product of serotonin production. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that influences mood, attention, sleep, memory, and feeling relaxed. But, you have far more serotonin in your gut than in your brain. Your brain can trigger the serotonin OR, more likely, your stomach will “outplay” the brain with serotonin releases! So how does all this work together?
It is the quality of the microbiome in your gut that runs your life.
Here is the biggie: the amount and depth of stress you feel signals BOTH the brain and the stomach. That means, “How you is feel is REAL ALL OVER!”
That’s also why on-going (chronic) stress is so evil for your body and brain. Your stress (or any other adverse psychological factors) can and does affect bowel movements, new cell generation, brain chemistry, the immune system, and make you more susceptible to infection.
Chronic social defeat (e.g. a supervisor or colleague who says or does hurtful things to you, or your idea voiced in a meeting is “shot down” rudely) will induce behavioral changes associated with reduced richness and diversity of the gut microbial community. This weakens digestion and immunity. That weakening hurts your brain function. Life affects your brain, which affects your gut, which affects your health.
And this connection always goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, your upset stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.
Now, let’s talk about weight gain. At each developmental and maturation age, the body and brain are trying to help you survive. If you are a female, you don’t need a bit of extra fat at age 10, but by puberty, your body wants to add some, since childbearing is becoming a possibility. Extra fat helps ensure a food source for the pregnant mom.
But why would your body add fat when you’re over forty, past the likely childbearing years? The answer is … it doesn’t try to do that!
If anything, your body is trying to get leaner as you grow into middle age. “B.S.,” you say!” So what’s really happening with the weight gain?
Ahh … back to your gut. As women age, they often take on more responsibilities (and stressors). These include your issues with your supervisor, colleagues, your own children, your grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters and, of course, your partner at home. Females take more time to check in and influence those in the family than males. This process can (but not always) be (but is not always) incredibly stressful.
Diane and I were in the airport lobby the other day. Four elderly women were together, waiting for their upcoming flight to take them back home. Two of the women, spent much of their wait time on their cell phones. Though we could not hear every word at each end, the conversations appeared to be stressful, with raised voices at times.
Now, you and I both know that though there could have been life-threatening events going on,. But that’s not likely. Unfortunately, the ladies waiting time became a stress-generating time.
Now, let’s tie this secret to weight regulation.
You must grapple with this brain-stomach connection. Every anxiety your feel, every stressor you take on, and every responsibility you choose has a price. The hole in the comforter, the student you threatened, the broken microwave, the dying plant in the yard, the upset colleague, the cracks in the driveway, the ills of your sister- in- law…WILL ALL COST YOU.
You ask yourself to continually juggle more and more and more LIFE-WORK-FAMILYuntil the brain is in a constant state of anxiety. The brain grapples with these stressors by screaming at you that you are in a crisis and you MUST EAT MORE to protect your survival chances. After all, things could get pretty bad if all your imagined adverse outcomes happen!
The price is paid by your brain and body.
The brain gets grumpy, loses cognitive capacity, and your brain produces fewer brain cells. The body saves MORE and MORE fats for all the upcoming crises that you have convinced your brain WILL HAPPEN!
In short, as trauma and health pioneer Dr. van der Kolk says, “The body keeps the score.” Or, as I would say to you, “Stop killing yourself worrying about what might, or could happen and start enjoying what you do have in life.”
And that stress you generate says, “Eat comforting foods,” and it can show up as weight gain.
I could list 50 ideas here about how to de-stress, but you already know many of them. I am hoping that this reminder about the connectivity of the stomach and brain is illuminating. But just in case, here are a few of my own stress-reducing tools:
- Take action (do something about what stresses you)
- Write it down for later (sometimes the problem diminishes)
- One Week Rule (ask yourself if this issue will even matter a week from now)
- With a supportive friend and listener, talk out your frustrations
- Redirect your attention (immediately do something else; leave the scene)
- Burn off energy (go play or exercise by working out daily)
- Reframe the experience (give it a different meaning, “She’s new here ….”)
- Let it go / Meditation (foster mindfulness at http://www.mindful.org/magazine/)
So, my question is, “When will it be important enough to feel younger, look good, and have the energy of a monkey that just escaped from the zoo?” (How about now?)
LAST WORD: So, is it really my genes that make me skinny? I’m sure they play a part in it all. But let’s review: I am a fanatic for getting my 6-7 hours of sleep every night (!); I snack carefully; I eat nuts and smoothies for snacks; I avoid ALL artificial sweeteners; I have learned to notice my hunger, then to postpone my eating; I work out nearly every day; I don’t feel guilty when I don’t obey my rules; I take the stairs instead of the elevator. This all this puts me back in charge of my health.
Have a good month. Got parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles? Next month (June), I’ll share with you how to deal with Alzheimer’s disease.
Your partner in learning,
President, CEO, Jensen Learning Corp