It’s All Endocrine

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on December 16, 2010 at 9:40 am

. . . and semantics.

I stand with my hand on the refrigerator door.  I’ve stood here hundreds of times.  Motionless except for my breathing.  Hoping for the phone to ring and pull me away, or for the invisible, magnetic pull of the refrigerator door to magically reverse and push me away. 

An impulse has pulled me down the staircase and deposited me here.  I know if I open the door, I’ll find the brick of Jarlsberg, the jar of toasted pecans, the sliced turkey and/or stuffed olives.  There are also bagged baby greens and baby carrots in there, “conveniently prepared” produce, which I won’t even see — unless I decided to dip the carrots in hummus or peanut butter.  There are also organic apples.  Which I likely won’t acknowledge.  I know that. 

A year ago this time, I might also have considered the leftover pesto tortellini I’d fed to my husband and son the night before, but I avoid grain-based carbs now.  I haven’t lost the capacity to reason and control myself, but I’m having an “eat” impulse, and it’s pulled me to this place again.  And I stand and breathe, thinking nonthoughts and fragments.   I didn’t arrive here because of hunger in the gnawing sense.  But whatever took me here is real, if illogical. I know it well.  Over the past seven years, we have become familiar friends.  I know too that even if I override the “eat” impulse in this moment, I’ll probably wander back here in a half hour.

If you were to look at my larger life, you could find unresolved emotional conflicts, unexpressed angers, jealousy, general anxiety, all kinds of emotional untidiness.  Popular magazines regularly admonish us that if we are eating in the absence of hunger, we’re eating in a misdirected attempt to quell or numb emotions.  I think this is poppycock.  I refuse to blame my emotions for this regular meditation that happens in front of the refrigerator door and sometimes ends with me walking away, other times with a quick snack (Barbara Berkeley calls them “Grab and Go”) and other times begins a 600-calorie “binge,” which only takes minutes more to complete than a Grab and Go.  Actually, three “Grab and Go” episodes in a morning equals one binge.  It’s all the same.   

As I stand here, I may feel some anxiety or foggy-headed disjointedness, but it is rare that I run to the refrigerator in a smoking rage or at another emotional peak.  If emotions are related to this moment, then cause and effect are unclear.  As I have explained before, I think rather than our emotions causing us to eat irrationally, it is more likely that the endocrine that wants my body to restore one of its lost pounds – that insinuates an “eat” impulse into my subconscious – does its work, in part, by causing the foggy headedness, which leads to general anxiety and difficulty solving problems.  The same popular magazines that admonish us not to be emotional eaters try to tell us that eating won’t help us with our emotional problems.  But they are wrong, and on a gut level we all know this.  

I know that if I eat something, or even have a mini-binge, often I may then start making progress on projects and relationships that were stalled by emotional dishevelment.  My fogginess passes when I eat.  You know this too.  Sure, eating won’t resolve all your work conflicts, for example, but you’ll be more cogent in a staff meeting if you’re not subconsciously distracted and annoyed by hunger or “eat” impulses.  Eating won’t repair a broken marriage, but a clear head makes talking to your lawyer more productive.

What are emotions?  Emotions aren’t outside forces, pushing us to eat.  They are chemical reactions within us, in a complicated conversation with us.  We experience them as sensations in our gut, within our chest wall, in our tear ducts as they heat up, and under the surface of our flushing skin.  They may start as thought fragments, and then develop into paragraph litanies.  We experience other emotions as tingles in nether regions and private places.  Prickles on our neck.  Others gust through us as vague cloudbursts.  Sometimes we go numb and we want to feel emotions, but we feel abandoned by them.  And when that happens, I’m just as likely, maybe more so, to take my stand in front of the refrigerator door as I am when in the throes of an emotional crisis. 

Emotions are little endocrine surges in our bodies.  Recipes of hormones and other chemicals.   Many are also associated with eating and weight.  Serotonin is central to our pleasure response, and it is also activated by certain foods.  Cortisol is associated with stress, and also weight retention.  That said, should we try to solve weight issues by resolving emotional issues first? 

I think it’s both impossible and unproductive.  Emotional issues will continually resurface.  New emotional issues present themselves every day.  We simply can’t stay ahead of them.  But we can deal with them better if we’re not hungry or pestered by “eat” impulses.  The most productive thing we can do is try to unbraid the strands that connect our emotions and our eating.  Acknowledge that there is a relationship (with unclear cause-and-effect), but surgically separate them like Siamese twins.  Deal with weight issues as a fascinating scientific experiment.  Deal with emotional issues by drawing on inner wisdom and the wisdom of others.

This past summer, I was talking to a friend in late-stage cancer.  Her doctors had advised her to stay ahead of her pain, take a pill at the first hint of the onset of pain.  Don’t let it get a foothold!  I was struck by this, because I had mentally been using the same technique for my weight management.   I talk about ice skating on a single blade at the edge of hunger.  I stay ahead of hunger, by just an edge, generally in 300- to 600-calorie bursts that give me three to six hours of satiety at a time.   I learned how to do this by twisting and manipulating the principles of intuitive eating, and that’s another blog post trying to happen.

For this blog post, I’d like to end on the following thoughts.   Emotions are ENDOCRINE, internal chemicals in conversation with us about the state of our human interactions.  They come in degrees of intensity.  Pain is ENDOCRINE, in conversation with us about our state of wellness v. disease.  It also expresses itself in degrees of intensity.  Hunger, and, to a lesser degree, “eat” impulses, are ENDOCRINE – our body’s chemical conversation with us about the state of our energy needs and our fat stores.  Emotions, pain, hunger, eat impulses are all examples of human conundrums that may share common endocrine chemicals, but CAN be dealt with separately, and, for sanity’s sake, should be.  I’ve said it before:  we drag our conundrums through our lives like anvils on chains.  It is much easier to drag anvils one at a time rather than tying them together and dragging them as pairs or groups. 

Where was I?  Oh:  hand on the refrigerator door.  I breathe, then mentally count my calories thus far in the day.  I look at my watch.  I think through the tasks of the day.  I have some mindless filing I need to do.  I walk away from the refrigerator.  “See ya in half an hour, Friend.”

  1. Yeah, been there, done that. I think that the endocrine connection is key — empty fat cells are apparently notorious signalers wrt being filled back up.

    But as someone who tilts more to the emotional overeater/addict side of the continuum, I think there’s also other chemistry going on, especially in the brain. I found this video fascinating in that respect: And was somewhat comforted by the fact that there’s hope for those of us who are affected!

    • Once again, Beth, you’ve given me some good homework.

      Oh, and by the way, thank you for that lab animal link, which turned out to be a better link than the one I provided in my next post. When I first got it from you, I didn’t read it closely. I noted that it was focused squarely on David Allison, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll read that critically later.” He’s one of those “fit-in” scientists who sometimes does good research and other times blows it. (“Mokdad and Allison” is the famous deathfat study that people continue to quote even though it was disproved by Flegal et. al.) At any rate, it turns out the link you provided and the study it was based on was pretty interesting and wouldn’t have advanced bias.

      • Thanks, Beth, for the link. I too connect with the compulsive side of overeating and addictive behaviors. The compulsive actions are not linked so much to specific substances, such as sugar or so-called trigger foods, but with the chemical cascade manufactured by my brain in response to my beliefs surrounding my actions. That’s why overeating and resistance to overeating impulses must be devoid of judgement and shame. Also, I need to have a deep and powerful trust in my body’s ability to transform and heal, including my brain’s ability to create new pathways of biochemical reaction to impulses and urges. Otherwise, what would be the point of enduring pain while experimenting with resistance to urges and impulses?

    • The YouTube video really fits with me. Thanks for the link. I saw the similarities of my problem with addiction (other kinds) long ago. I treat mine as an addiction – just not eating the things that trigger it. With varying amounts of success. A day at a time, sometimes. So far so good.

  2. Ah, yes, now I have a much better understanding about what you are saying regarding emotions and eating/impuses. Over the years I have learned not to try and “figure out” why I feel a certain way. I don’t insist on naming my feelings either. My mind will readily create a host of entertaining explanations and stories, none of which provides me with the support, or power, I seek.

    I recognize urges to analyze feelings (and thoughts) as impulses to control (construct, repair, maintain) reality in a particular way, based on left brain interpretation of events and a lifetime of conditioning. Left brain (hemisphere) is useful for many things. However, it creates illusions of control, as in “I should be able to…” or “If I do X then I can make Y happen.” It creates a lot of grief and blame if used to construct cause and effect out of correlation. Again, it creates illusions of control.

    Right hemisphere, on the other hand, is barely developed in our culture. I’m not sure where intuition fits in. I don’t think it is the same as endocrine reactions. There is mystery, and there is some *power* with which I participate. The more I recognize my impulses to control the outcome of actions (like communication, for instance) the easier I ride.

    Of course all the above is a story constructed by *left brain*. Kind of. It’s putting words to a metaphor that would be much better said through poetry.

    So my question to you, Debra, and to anyone else: What happens if the impulse is resisted? As in when one carries the experiment forward, over time, after one minute, hour, day, etc. What happens to the impulse/urge?

    • What happens with impulses/urges that are resisted repeatedly? In my situation it’s simple. I always succumb. It may play out over several hours. I may return to the refrigerator three, four or more times, but, ultimately, I succumb, and always long before I feel true hunger. This doesn’t make me unhappy. There’s no judgement. No failure. It’s just a regular process/part of my life. Thus far, I remain a productive tax-paying citizen. Am I disordered? Probably, but I’m unqualified to diagnose. I suspect other people do this too. Are we all disordered? Probably. Is our society disordered? Probably, for this and other reasons that you have been outlining in your various responses.

  3. Well, Beth, I watched the video. Very resonant stuff there. What a lovely man! I also feel really affirmed that in the tail end of my last comment to RNegade I pontificated that our society is probably disordered, and, indeed, Doctor Mate ends on such a note, but with more certainty — he uses the word addicted instead of disordered, but we’re on the same page.

    I love his final comment, so quotable: “Only in the presence of compassion will people allow themselves to see the truth.” So true. I used to run a nonprofit called Arts in Prison, where volunteer teachers taught inmates various fine arts — painting, drawing, poetry, singing, acting, etc. While working there I became very impatient with the hard-core hard hearts, bootcamp and balogna sandwich proponents. They are so wrong. Their techniques only confirm for inmates that the world is a stinking hole and that they are absolutely right and justified to commit crimes of anger/desperation/escape. If an inmate’s heart is going to turn, if he is going to face his guilt, feel his remorse and take his life in a different direction, it isn’t because he suddenly realizes how tough prison is and he doesn’t ever want to go back. I saw hearts turn when these men created art, side by side with skilled volunteer educators who had brought in high quality donated supplies. The program quietly communicated: “You are worth these supplies. You are worth our time and expertise. You have something creative to offer the world.” When the men realized how this was compassion made tangible, it brought some of them to tears. It was really a bear to raise money for this program, but it was so worth it.

    I wonder if what I absorbed from that program while running it affects my relationship with my body now. I suspect it does. I lost the weight and began my maintenance while running this program. Hmmmmm.

    I should also probably lengthen my list of blessings that makes my weight management possible. I had a connected mother. I don’t have abuse in my “implicit memory.”

    • Thanks for sharing your observations about the inmates. I do think these things are all connected, in ways we may only now glimpse. Art, for instance, becomes a strange source of power for me during times of extreme stress. Living my art isn’t like performing a *tip or trick* to help manage or control impulses, but I know it has some significant relationship to my brain chemistry, and to self soothing, which science cannot explain for me. Art connects me with a sense of something (some experience?) that I crave.

  4. Debra,
    Like others, I have been admiringly reading your blog since it began. I started writing a response to your “What is unhelpful?” post 2 days ago and what resulted was a veritable cascade of emotions, observations, opinions and questions. Having discarded my ramblings as best not shared with others, and given that I’m completely new at this gig, I’m going to sit a bit longer on the sideline before proffering any views but I just wanted to say thank you to you and all the posters for the honesty and wisdom.

    • Gosh, Ali. First, welcome. And, second, if you haven’t noticed, long comments here are fine. Long responses become fodder for additional posts. I think we need longer responses here, because we enter taboo territories. Everyone here is challenging the Great American Weight-Loss Dream, even though some of us live it. We’re coming from all angles: cultural, scientific, metaphorical, emotional, poetic, etc. And we’re skewering the omnipresent “Biggest Loser” mythology/mentality that has been hurting people for decades prior to that show’s debut — has, in fact, culminated in that show’s debut. There is no short-cut language or jargon for what we’re doing yet. (I kind of hope there never is.)

      So, get stuff off your chest. Cathart. Then maybe that will free you to make more concise posts in the future. Or not. No matter. If your first post is overly rambly, that’s okay. I’ll do what the pastor does in church when someone kind of loses it during community joys-and-concerns time: “Thank you for sharing.”

      • Hesitantly, I proffer the following response to the concerned nutritious snack:

        Dear nutritious snack,

        Thank you for your offer of moderate calories to sustain me for the next hour. Due to the high calibre of other applicants, your application at this time has been unsuccessful. However, I would encourage you to apply for future openings with this organization…because, let’s face it, there are going to be so many openings and you may just catch me at a “moment”.

        A moment when I fail the pop-quiz that I run through my head when I am staring at the day’s count and wondering whether I can eat something “out of session”. I’d say “weak” moment. But I’m not sure that it is. Because like Debra (go read her blog, it’s very good, you might learn something) I think that there are times when the body just plain needs a little something. The pop quiz goes something like:

        1. When did you last eat? Look, 10 minutes ago, OK – but that doesn’t change the fact THAT I’M HUNGRY. I know what I ate was nutritious and well-balanced. My colleague even commented on it (thank you concerned colleague…I’ll address your inappropriate comments some other time) BUT I DON’T CARE. I want “something” else. Really. not something massive, just a little something.
        2. What did you last eat? Are you trying to counteract sweet with savory? No, this is not entirely logical alright. This is about a little something.
        3. Do you know what it is you want to eat? Uhhhh, well actually, not really…Ummmm, maybe….yes. Actually I want to consume my body weight in French pastries, but since I will never get to eat those again, I would settle for yoghurt. Or an orange…
        4. How far away from next planned consumption? Can you wait it out? The next planned consumption is 1 hour, 17 minutes and 23 seconds away. I can probably wait out the 23 seconds…
        5. Look, are you thirsty? Could you try a glass of water? Then wait 5 minutes and see how you feel? Done that. Didn’t work.
        6. Now how far away from next planned consumption are you? 1 hour, 16 minutes and 53 seconds. Really. I can’t function. I’ve got the fidgets.
        7. Look, I really think you can cope. Really. I do. Think of the 60 pounds you’ve lost. If you eat this one tub of very nutritious yoghurt (the one you’ve selected over all others because it only contains 70 calories per 200g, rather than 113 calories per 200g) you will put on all 60 pounds immediately afterwards. You know that don’t you? Oh, don’t be ridiculous. That’s just stupid. I ran 8 km at lunchtime today. I need to replace calories. My body is a finely tuned machine that needs energy to keep going.
        8. But if you start eating, can you stop? No, probably not.
        9. Right then. There’s your answer. OK – I’ll have a cup of herbal tea and find something to do. Anything.

        And somewhere 36 and 54 seconds later, I will eat the yoghurt. Because if I don’t, what I eat to compensate for not eating the yoghurt will probably be worse for the daily count. Sure, it’ll be nutritious, it won’t be French pastries and I’ll be able to justify it. But it will be worse. And there’ll be more of it.

        Yours sincerely,

      • Ah, I forgot to mention the MOST important angle of all: Humor!

        Gotta say, Ali, it’s rare when my refrigerator door meditations are so cogent (or lengthy), but they often have snippets of those elements. I guess I just skip over many of them anymore, or take a mental shortcut, since I know the outcome pretty well.

  5. Wow. This is all so helpful. Thank you for this post Debra and thank you, Beth, for the link to Dr. Mate’s talk. Debra, you wrote that, “Popular magazines regularly admonish us that if we are eating in the absence of hunger, we’re eating in a misdirected attempt to quell or numb emotions. I think this is poppycock.” I completely agree with you, but maybe for slightly different reasons. I have an intense problem with compulsive/binge eating and have had on and off for about 40 years (I’m 50 now). For me, weight loss or maintaining weight loss, isn’t the primary issue. What I really suffer from is the physical and emotional pain of intensive overeating and many years ago I switched my attempts at trying to “fix” myself from trying to lose weight to trying to get over compulsive eating. I’ve never been very successful at either endeavor, but lately I’ve been looking back with a sort of rage at all the bad advice I’ve bought into over the years. Part of this has to do with “emotional eating.” The “popular magazines” (and mental health counselors I have gone to) push the idea that overeating is emotional—i.e., you feel sad and turn to cookies, you have a fight with a friend and wolf down a whole bad of potato chips. And the solution to this is to somehow “manage” ones emotions in over to avoid overeating. It IS poppycock, but for me, it is poppycock not because my eating isn’t emotional, but because this type of advice doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the depth of the psychic pain that drives me to overeat. It is advice that trivializes my experience and makes it seem as though emotions are stable, discrete facets of our personalities to be managed and that doing so is one more “healthy lifestyle” obligation. Dr. Mate’s talk struck a chord with me because he does acknowledge that psychic pain (even though he wasn’t talking about food).

    • Thanks, Hope. Yes, I would love for Doctor Mate to address how his theories relate to food. Though he is doing good work, it seems, in the world of drug addiction. And that is enough.

      In any event, compassion is clearly key. We must embrace compassion for ourselves (as well as others). I infer that this process requires us to surmount the absence of compassion in our past, perhaps even before the development of our explicit memories. (I adored the story of his wife and his over-reaction to her “no” to sex.) I would offer that it requires extraordinary forgiveness.

      Your name is appropriate for your life task.

      • If the content of the Gabor Mate video resonated, you may want to check out his new book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” (it’s on Amazon for $12 and change). I have it but haven’t started reading it yet.

        I don’t expect it to offer much in the area of self-help, but I do expect more in the order of understanding the issue. Note: he doesn’t spend a lot of time on food (it shows up explicitly in the book twice according to the index).

  6. Debra, I’m finding it interesting how much this parallels some of the self-management I do when depression symptoms strike. Do the facts of the situation match my feelings, or might my feelings be out of proportion (influenced by depression)? Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired — any of which can make me more susceptible to depression?

    Years ago I realized that I always have depressive symptoms if I don’t get enough sleep for 3 or more nights in a row. I’ve become much more focused on getting enoughs sleep since then.

    I was pleased to discover a few years ago that making sure to get more fiber in my diet would significantly reduce blood sugar swings. Then I discovered that my primary “hungry” signal had been dropping blood sugar … and had to find other cues.

    But then, there’s a reason I’ve responded well to Celexa and Wellburtin in the past — depression is endocrine-related too.

    (In particular, the symptoms I watch for are: repeated ruminating on failures that have been resolved; unexplained irritability; unexplained feelings of sadness, worthlessness or guilt; poor concentration or having difficulty making decisions; thinking about death or suicide.)

    • Yes, indeedy, Endocrine is powerful and pervades so many aspects of our life and well being. That said, we have to figure out what is helpful — keeps us productive, tuned in, somewhat content within the bounds of our reality. I’m happy for you that Celexa and Wellburtin have worked for you. Hope you continue to read yourself and find tools that work. I don’t think it’s my imagination that endocrine is a moving target. And our tools are primitive. On bad days, it’s just a giant game of “whack-a-mole.”

  7. I’m planning to watch the Mate clip tomorrow when hubby is at work and the kids are still sleeping the sleep of the teenage just on winter vacation.

    I have to admit, I’m going to watch this clip with a dash of scepticism. I read much of Mate’s book on attention deficit disorder (ADD), which he has himself. Although the book is very interesting, the nub of his argument is that it’s all the mother’s fault. I found this strange. He has ADD, as do his three kids. But it’s still his wife’s fault…Hmm.

    So, I’m not totally a Mate fan, though I’m willing to listen to what he has to say on another topic.

    • NewMe, that’s essentially the gist of the argument in the video (it’s much longer than a clip BTW) … so maybe you don’t need to watch after all!

      That said, I suppose that you can say his position is that it’s “the mother’s fault.” But if he’s right that the brain gets wired a certain way during infancy/toddlerhood because of the presence or absence of the right king of nurturing, then you could say it’s the mother’s fault, but actually it’s really the bigger fault of our culture/society.

    • I’ve looked at his speech and some of his literature, and I don’t see that he is blaming the mother at all. He claims that mothers (well, parents in general) are put in unnaturally stressful conditions during pregnancy and while raising young children because our social systems are good at paying lip service to family values but in reality do little to actually support healthy functioning of families (in contrast to the kind of child rearing that was historically supported and assisted by the family’s tribe, clan, or extended family in days of yore, among 1st Peoples, for example.) Women who attempt to breastfeed, for instance, yet must return to the workplace at six weeks postpartum and are given 30 minutes to pump at work (just try to keep up your supply doing that!) are enduring tremendous physical and emotional stress that is then communicated to the infant. The fathers are often struggling, too, to be supportive of the mother’s efforts and of their child’s developmental needs but the fathers generally have not been given much support or help in that area either (they had to take a certain number of hours of instruction and pass a test before driving a car, yet anyone can take a human infant home and attempt to raise it, regardless of their experience, level of skill, psychological apptitude, nurturing ability, economic resources, social support system, etc. GAH!) So, Mate is saying that as a culture we are quick to blame and hold individuals responsible when problems arise as a result of inadequate social support, but we are much happier investing in prisons than in social support systems and education.

  8. Late to comment, but wanted to say that I ‘got’ what you are saying. When I have a hot flash in direct response to stress/anger/embarrassment/whatever, this all makes complete sense. Funny I didn’t get it before.

  9. Oh wow, I know that edge. Just ahead of hunger. There’s another metabolic edge, too, which I found with the Bodybugg the last time I was actively losing. That is, staying at just about the same calorie deficit all day. Waking up in the morning 500 calories down due to what you burn while sleeping, and never fully closing the gap. Never letting yourself get too behind with the calories but never really getting ahead.

    • I know people with these Bodybuggs. No Celery who participates here has one too. When I looked at them, they struck me as expensive, but I’m interested that the two of you (and another person I know) have found them useful.

  10. […] point, either because they never started the diet, they always plateaued, or they were defeated by eat impulses before they got to the “maintenance” bit. Or they may just assume that a “healthy […]

  11. […] powerful effect on weight in general. (Do the neurological changes have something to do with the “eat impulses” that DebraSY describes?) While studies have found that things like how much food is presented does affect how much people […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: