It was strep throat – again. I’m 38 years old and I still get strep throat. Apparently my immune system hasn’t matured either. This time was bad and I was bed bound for 48 hours. Ever the doctor, while I was lying in bed shivering with fever I had an interesting thought. I have absolutely no desire to eat. I handn’t eaten anything meangful in 48 hours and I had absolutely no desire for any food or drink. Why am I not hungry if I haven’t eaten? If I wasn’t sick, I would be famished.
My utter lack of desire for food reminded me of one of the most central tenets of my book that appetite is not due to a true lack of food but to a complex array of signals in your brain that can be stimulated by a number of things, lack of food being one of them. To say it a different way, that feeling that you want to eat is all in your head.
What do I mean when I say it’s all in your head? When you haven’t eaten in a while your body starts producing chemicals, hormones, peptides, etc. that travel to a part of your brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls a lot of your unconscious body functions including appetite and satiety. This then triggers all the sensations, emotions, and metabolic changes that you experience as that very uncomfortable feeling of hunger. A different cascade of physiology happens after you’ve eaten that you experience as the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of being full. These are powerful sensations but they are only chemical reactions happening in your brain. That’s what I mean when I say it’s all in your head.
What’s interesting is that things other than not having eaten can trigger hunger and things other than eating enough can trigger satiety. My pediatric illness was an example. When you’re sick, your immune system produces all types of chemicals and hormones to fight the infection. Some of these impact the hypothalamus and decrease appetite. Alternatively, some medications act on the hypothalamus as a side effect to trigger appetite while others can trigger satiety. When you’re thirsty, you trigger your appetite as well as thirst centers of the brain. Stress impacts appetite differently for different people. Some people have increased appetite, others decreased. Intense exercise has been shown to decrease appetite while moderate exercise can increase appetite. There are many other examples but I think you get the idea.
The most important point to glean is that, when you’re hungry, it can be an overpowering sensation that feels completely real. You feel as if you truly need to eat but this is not necessarily the case. It may be that your hypothalamus is being triggered by something other than the need to eat – stress, depression, habit, etc – and while the hunger feels real, it isn’t. It’s an illusion. It’s just chemical reactions in your brain. If you eat a healthy diet with enough calories, you don’t need to eat, you want to eat.
This creates an opportunity for mindfulness. When you feel hungry, stop for a second and remind yourself that the sensation is merely a collection of chemical reactions in your hypothalamus telling you to eat more. Focus on the sensation of the hunger. How does it feel? Where is it located? Are there any associated emotions? Then remind yourself that if you have eaten enough that day the sensation is not real. It’s all in your head. If you can do this, over time I believe you will train yourself to diminish the intensity of the sensation so that it doesn’t overpower you and lead to over eat and will eventually help you lose weight.
For more on mindfulness click here. Good luck!