Do you want to lose weight and get fit? Do you start most Monday’s motivated and determined and by Thursday night, you’re skipping the gym, eating takeaways and drinking a bottle of wine? Trust me, you’re not alone.
Here’s the thing, your weight is not the issue. The problem started off as something else; a chemical imbalance, trauma, or maybe low self-esteem.
You turned to food to make you feel better and (surprise, surprise) you gained weight. Then the fun begins, you went on a diet. You may have lost a few kilos, but sooner or later your brain started to fight you. To shed the kilos and keep it off, you need to look at the way your brain works and also what chemical deficiencies may be driving you to overeat and sabotage your diet.
Your brain has many different components. The part of your brain that wants you to be slim is the most advanced - we’ll call it your computer brain. Under that, lies more primitive layers, which we will refer to as your animal brain.
Your computer brain wants you to look good in your jeans. Your animal brain wants you well fed, chemically balanced and couldn’t give a toss how you look in your clothes. So, when you go on a diet, your computer brain is taking over and saying “Right, I have had enough of you pigging out. We are cutting back on food until all this flab is gone!”
It may last a while; you might even lose weight. But in the battle between the animal and computer brain, the animal will eventually win. Every time. When you restrict your food intake, your animal brain assumes there some type of famine and goes into panic mode. It floods your body with stress hormones which in turn make it even harder to lose weight.
To keep your animal brain under control, it’s important to try to relax and get in touch with what’s causing us to overeat in the first place. A major reason why we binge eat is we are self-medicating with food. Foods are drugs. We get dopamine (a pleasure chemical) from sugar, serotonin (a mood booster) from starchy carbs, and GABA (a calming chemical) from alcohol.
In this article, I’m going to talk about ways to boost the neurotransmitters you may be lacking or deficient in, to help you feel better and stop the cycle of self-medicating and feeling like crap. Checking these neurotransmitters is the first place I start with my clients when addressing binge eating and addiction issues.
1. Dopamine – The motivating neurotransmitter that makes you feel focused, energized and excited. When you are low in dopamine, you tend to feel distracted, sluggish, prone to procrastination and find it hard to take pleasure in life.
What you crave when you are low – sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, energy drinks, diet drinks, porn, sex, amphetamines and cocaine.
How To Boost Dopamine
Diet – Almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy, eggs, fish, meat and poultry, oats, sesame and pumpkin seeds may all help your body to produce more dopamine.
Supplements – L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that is the building block for dopamine. It‘s also a precursor to thyroid hormones, so therefore useful to increase low energy levels, boost alertness, as an appetite suppressant, thyroid function and to increase sexual desire.
L-Phenylalanine is also a precursor to dopamine as well as many other important neurotransmitters. It’s a natural mood booster and antidepressant, curbs sugar and stimulant cravings, helps in controlling pain, particularly arthritis and is used to help treat Parkinson’s disease. L-Phenylalanine also helps forms another energizing brain chemical called PEA (phenylethylamine), (also found in chocolate) which is believed to be the chemical most responsible for feelings of euphoria.
2. Serotonin – Serotonin is the neurotransmitter largely responsible for regulating moods and emotions. When your serotonin levels are good, you tend to feel confident, positive, and easygoing.
If you’re low in serotonin—you’ll tend to become negative, obsessive-compulsive, worried, irritable and have trouble sleeping. Most antidepressants primarily boost serotonin. Over 90% of your serotonin is made in your gut, so a lot of the time a lack of serotonin is a gut health issue.
For people with low serotonin levels, they are most likely to crave alcohol, carbs, white flour, sugar and opiates (heroin, painkillers). These substances can mimic serotonin and lead to a brief increase in serotonin levels, making the person feel temporarily better but having nasty crashes when the levels drop again.
How To Boost Serotonin
Diet – Serotonin is created from tryptophan in our diet and tryptophan is found in foods like beef, chicken, dairy products, eggs, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, pork, turkey and whey protein. While foods high in tryptophan don’t boost serotonin on their own, there is a way around it: eat them with carbs.
Carbs trigger the body to release more insulin, which causes your body to absorb competing nutrients leaving more tryptophan in the blood, which in turn creates higher serotonin levels. If you want to boost serotonin without supplements, eat high tryptophan with a serving of healthy carbohydrates, like root vegetables, oats, or fruit.
Supplements – 5-HTP (5-hydroxy L-tryptophan) is a naturally occurring metabolite of the amino acid tryptophan. 5-HTP is converted in the brain to serotonin (Caution: Not to be used when taking MAO inhibitors, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other anti-depressant medications.)
B-Complex– All of the B vitamins are vital for energy and the production of serotonin and are used up rapidly in times of stress.
Calcium/Magnesium – Both calcium and magnesium are precursors to serotonin production, so it’s important to be getting plenty in your diet. I always take calcium and magnesium at night with dinner and notice a huge difference with my stress levels and sleep.
3. GABA – GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is your brain’s natural valium. If you’re high in GABA—you feel relaxed and stress-free. If you are low in GABA—you feel anxious, irritable, overwhelmed, stressed and wired.
When you are low in GABA, you tend to have anxiety attacks, carbohydrate and alcohol cravings, ringing in the ears, muscle tension (especially in neck and back), trembling/twitching muscles, numbness or tingling in fingers, your breathing may be too fast and too shallow, excessive sweating, heart palpitations and insomnia.
Alcohol, marijuana, valium and heroin all boost GABA in the brain and body. This is why a person severely deficient in GABA, which may be genetic or acquired from stress and trauma, will turn to alcohol and drugs and are much more likely to become addicted.
This is part of the reason why people find it so hard to stop using substances that they know are not good for them. Once they stop, their GABA goes down and they feel anxious, overwhelmed and unable to sleep.
How To Boost GABA
L-Theanine an amino acid found in green tea increases levels of GABA and dopamine within the brain, increases the production of alpha brainwaves, as well as boosting focus and mental clarity. Studies show that L-Theanine is useful in the treatment of anxiety due to its ability to calm the nervous system, counteracting the toxic effects of stress as well as improving sleep.
Passion Flower extract has been shown boost GABA to aid in relaxation, and reduce tenseness and restlessness without creating dependency.
Focus on eating healthy unprocessed foods without counting calories.
We are addicted to sugar, wheat and processed foods and it takes a bit of time to reset your brain to stop craving those foods. I highly recommend The Whole 30 diet to do a reset to un-addict yourself from food.
When you feel yourself wanting or starting to overeat, stop and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, what are you feeling right now? Are you stressed, angry at your spouse, lonely or bored? There may be a part of you that believes that you are safer being overweight.
I also believe every extra kilo you hold on your body may equal a kilo of emotional trauma you’re carrying in your heart (not to mention tummy, thighs and ass). Balancing your neurotransmitters as well as healing your pain will help you shed the fat that’s protecting you. If you have been on several diets and still find yourself gain back the weight, there may be an underlying issue you’re not dealing with.
Sometimes we are aware of what’s causing us to be unbalanced, other times we know we’re not happy, but don’t know why. The problem is, feeling unhappy is not normal and it doesn’t go away by pretending it’s not happening, so we seek relief with food, alcohol and drugs, etc.
Figuring out why you are self-medicating and giving your brain and body what it needs in a healthy way, will help you release your addictive tendencies, need to overeat, and eat crap food.
To help get you on track, here is a link to one of my weight loss visualisations you can listen to for free.
Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.