By: Madeleine Ortiz
The brain is the control center for virtually everything happening in the body. A complex network of nerve cells, it’s responsible for sending the signals that make our bodies do what we’ve asked them to accomplish. It is also in charge of a myriad of everyday things we usually aren’t even aware are happening. From blinking to breathing to balancing, our brain is hard at work doing multiple things at once to keep us functioning.
For the most part, it’s a great thing that the brain does a lot on its own without our approval. Problems can arise, however, when we put our bodies in a state of distress, and cause the brain to take actions it thinks may be helping us, but could actually be contributing to weight gain. Dr. David Macklin, MD, Director of Weight Management at Medcan in Toronto, tells us some of the most common things that can tax our brains, and subsequently our waistlines, in the list below.
Sleep is so important. Our entire body uses sleep to reset for a new day with new challenges, but no organ needs sleep quite like the brain. Though the brain still works to keep us alive while we are snoozing, sleep lets all the non-essential components of the brain rest. When the brain doesn’t get the rest it needs, the strength of our desire towards food is increased and our restraint impulse is actually decreased. Not only does it feel like you want the food more, but you actually have less capacity to say no to it.
Why does stress have such an impact on weight management? Dr. Macklin asks us to think back thousands of years ago. Our ancestors, he says, weren’t stressed about paying bills on time or negotiating carpool schedules. More likely, their biggest stressor was finding food and the brain responded to this by increasing its attention towards any sign of food. Even though a food shortage might not be the cause of our stress today, our brain still urges us to make food the answer to it.
Depression is a disease that affects about 8% of adults (Source: Canadian Mental Health Association). For some, it lessens their desire for food, but for about half of those suffering, it actually strengthens it. Eating lights up the reward portion of the brain, which makes us feel happier. The brain wants us to be happier, so it sends signals to eat (and hopefully stimulate the reward brain). It’s a short-term solution that makes saying no to indulgences difficult for many who have depression.
Many who suffer from anxiety use phrases like “a fog” or a “loss of control” when trying to describe their symptoms to others. Brain science tells us that this is more than imagination. Anxiety decreases executive function in the brain which affects our ability to make decisions. This makes choosing the healthy snack over the less nutritious one easier said than done.
The Good News…
The brain isn’t all bad news when it comes to weight loss though. How frequently do you immediately follow up your exercise session with an entire pizza or a big banana split? Probably not that often, and it’s because when we exercise, our brain actually becomes less interested in foods that we might have found tempting prior to exercise. Dr. Macklin suggests combating cravings with movement, and letting reactions in the brain do more heavy lifting than your willpower alone. Another positive thing about our awesome brains? They are flexible, and they can pick up new habits easier than you might think.
WHAT TO DO:
Dr. Macklin recommends speaking with a therapist or other healthcare professional who can teach you strategies for recognizing stressors and changing reactions and behaviors to ones that help you reach your goals.
Get a little more activity in your day to make your brain more stress-proof and able to combat cravings with ease.
Talk to a physician who specializes in weight management to find out about the medical treatments that can make reaching a healthier weight easier.
Remember that it’s going to get easier…
SOURCE: Canadian Mental Health Association (https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness)
Listen to Dr. Macklin explain how staying active can improve our health:
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