Monday, November 2, 2009

Brain, Blood, Stomach, and Psyche

I’ve been pondering the nature of hunger as of late, and where it comes from and how to tamp down its insistent cries for attention. This speculation was set off by a question I and others with weight problems have asked ourselves many times. That question is, what is “real” hunger?

My feeling is that all hunger is “real” in terms of the strength of insistence that you eat, but I think that what the question is meant to ask is “when does the body really need food as opposed to want it?” For many people, the most useful answer is “in the stomach”. When the stomach is empty and grumbling, you are likely experiencing true biological hunger.

Unfortunately, getting to the stage of a demanding stomach takes awhile and can be very uncomfortable for most people. Part of me wonders if metabolically speaking waiting for a grumbling gut is akin to waiting for a dry mouth to drink. That is, it may not necessarily be the best to wait that long to eat as there may be some slow down in your overall metabolism.

The place in which most people in developed countries feel hunger is in the blood. That is, their body responds to dips and spikes in their blood glucose levels and demands more when the levels drop. Because of processed food, we experience more blood sugar fluctuation than our ancestors likely did and our bodies have become accustomed to the roller coaster ride and attempted to deal with it. This can result in insulin resistance, which makes the hunger ride all the rougher.

One neglected area where hunger becomes an issue is the brain. An immense amount of energy is used by the brain and those who do a lot of work which requires concentration and thinking are going to find the brain signaling a desire for quick energy. The sugar fixes that people who do computer programming or desk work crave aren’t based on boredom, fatigue or the imagination. They are the result of the brain saying, “I’m running low on glucose to do my job. Please feed me.”

The most dismissed type of hunger, is that which comes from the psyche or that which is based on using food as a palliative for emotional distress. Somehow, the idea that taking drugs, drinking alcohol, having sex, exercising, etc. can be overdone to cope with stress is well understood, and those with addictive or compulsive behavior in regard to those emotional release valves are seen as diseases to be regarded with patience and compassion. Eating too much to cope is seen as nothing more than disgusting gluttony and character weakness.

My opinion has always been that food has turned into the addiction of choice for Americans because American culture has done a great deal to warn and educate people about the nature of other forms of addictions and the risks they carry. How many characters in movies, books, and television shows have been smokers, drinkers, or sex addicts who have lived out the destruction and consequences as warnings to us? Not only that, but treatment for these people is spelled out. For food addicts, the answer is very often, “eat less, exercise more, you fat pig!” “Just do it,” is not an answer to the psychological addiction to food that many people (including myself) have.

If you want to handle hunger more effectively, I think it is useful to consider all factors that drive it rather than to focus only on one. Most people are likely driven to overeating by one more than another, but to some extent, we are all driven by all of them.

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