Weight and Emotional Eating

Emotional EatingWeight and emotional eating are two sides of the same coin. A few years ago, several people here at the Centre used the Dukan Diet to successfully lose weight and improve their health.  But interestingly, several people now report that their weight is going up again – and significantly for some. The most common reason I’ve heard for this weight gain is,
“I’m an emotional eater; this doesn’t work when I’m stressed or upset.”  So what exactly does this mean and what can be done about it?

Excessive weight gain is not so easy to explain, as there are several factors at play which can and will create issues for establishing and maintaining a healthy body weight.  There are physiological factors, such as heredity/genetics, the quality and quantity of foods eaten (eg. high sugar-high fat), an imbalance between the calories ingested and one’s activity level (too many calories for too little activity) and the general hormonal balance in the body. There are psychological factors such as mood disturbances (eg. grief or depression),  body-image issues (eg. anorexia or bulimia) and anxiety states.  It is interesting to note that complaints of  “boredom”  can actually be an expression of a mood disturbance or underlying anxiety states; many people use food to break their boredom. And there are the unconscious patterns/reactions and thoughts which constantly influence our outward behaviour and habits but which we do nothing about because they are deeply stuck in our unconscious mind.

The physiological factors are more widely known and discussed.  Hormonal issues are better understood, as we become more familiar with puberty, peri-menopause and menopausal states in the body.  The roles of thyroid hormones and weight gain are better understood.  And now the role of the adrenal hormone cortisol, which creates havoc during stressful times, is being shown to create its own set of concerns for the body and mind.  So how do stressors affect our eating practices and weight?

The adrenal glands, which sit atop our kidneys, are unique structures. The outer layer (the cortex) responds to cues from the Endocrine System (hormones) but the middle layer (the medulla) responds to cues from the Nervous System (brain). The adrenal cortex responds to increased stress by producing extra cortisol, while the adrenal medulla releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and nor-epinephrine (noradrenaline).

Cortisol affects us by increasing our food cravings (especially for starchy and sugary foods), increasing our level of ghrelin (the hunger hormone), altering our blood sugar and insulin levels, increasing abdominal fat and lowering our sleep quality.  Why does sleep quality matter?  When we don’t get enough restorative sleep, the body produces more cortisol!

An increase in adrenaline/nor-adrenaline causes the Fight-Flight-Fright reaction. We experience increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars and sweat production, decreased visual field, altered digestion and hormonal functional changes over time. Yes, these are some of the hormones implicated in our hunger and food cravings!

If the stressor experienced is acute, the body-mind have an opportunity to revert to a relaxed state once the stressor is removed or dealt with. However, chronic stress does not allow the body and mind to become restored, renewed and rested.  Instead, it keeps cortisol levels above normal range, interferes with restorative sleep, and keeps the body on constant “Alert” mode. And the cortisol levels continue to rise over time!

What about the other possible reasons for weight gain?

It is possible for any emotional, psychological or mental state where one does not feel “grounded and focused” to translate into a physical manifestation of weight gain.  Ongoing differences between what we want and expect from ourselves and the world and what our real situation is, can create internal stress. The differences between our imagined life and real life can create such stress that we feel the need to escape. Escapism is not congruent with being grounded!

To be grounded means we stand firmly in our personal power, assess reality with a practical focus and have a realistic view and approach to life.  In literal terms, an increase in weight provides the “mass” required to stand firmly on the ground. To help ourselves, we need to consider if our thoughts and feelings are truly realistic, because we need  to develop a sense of reality and drive in order to feel grounded again.  If we can feel more grounded and realistic in our world, then the outer need for extra weight can be released.

Our subconscious and unconscious minds may have issues that we are not yet fully aware. Or perhaps we were once aware but are now blocking and trying to ignore or forget because of the pain, shame or tears. We may be “stuffing down our emotions and memories” so we can’t feel or see them anymore. The body’s fat layer may be a physical manifestation of an emotional shield for our protection and security. But what are we protecting and shielding ourselves from?  What is making us feel vulnerable, insecure, overly sensitive, angry, ineffective, unappreciated, hurt, ignored, unloved?  What is the underlying thought, feeling or memory that is causing so much stress?  If we can find our way to feeling safe, secure and emotionally stable, then the physical barrier can become unnecessary. The need for the fat layer can be released.

In her book, Change For the Better, psychologist Elizabeth McCormick states:

”  If a person is unable to switch off, either physically or mentally, they may eventually break down.  It may be slow in coming, but break down they will because the body cannot maintain that level of stress. It was never intended to.  If we start to break down in our bodies with symptoms that don’t seem to have an organic cause, it is a message to us from the unconscious that we need to be taken into areas we have not yet explored or made conscious.  In today’s world, it is much easier to attribute the responsibility for our own stress to someone else. In the end, however, we shall be forced to face the real cause.”

You can always choose to do nothing about being overweight or managing your stressors in a positive way.  But note that some of the long term effects of ignoring yourself include blood sugar issues which often lead to diabetes and circulatory problems; increased blood pressure and heart rate which can lead to clots, stroke, heart attack and death;  reduced bone density which creates issues for mobility and strength; increased fat layers which can impede things such as your ability to walk, breathe, digest food, sleep, and attend to personal hygiene.  There are many emotional issues that come forth, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and out-of-control anger or helplessness.  Pain in every aspect of your being is also a possibility when you continue to ignore your needs.

The only way a person can truly lose weight and keep it off is by attending to ALL the contributing factors in their life. There is no “magic elixer” to do the work for you. Physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual practices that help to reduce all types of stressors, reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels, increase restorative sleep, increase proper nutrition, improve physical conditioning and promote a healthy sense of self, security and reality will all contribute to successful weight control.  Stress management techniques are an integral part of this health program; holistic care can provide a healthy foundation from which you can launch your New You.  Are you ready to say “Yes” to yourself?

Article written by Pat Antoniak, Registered Nurse – Registered Aromatherapist
and owner of the Natural Comfort Wellness Centre in Tsawwassen, BC

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