Friday, February 1, 2013

This Is Why You're Fat

The title of this post should more properly be, "this is possibly one reason why you're fat," or, perhaps more accurately, "this is probably one of the biggest reasons why I'm fat." However, I can't make a nod to that web site which shows food monstrosities by choosing such accurate titles, so there it is. The truth is that I try hard not to speak for anyone but myself, so I'll just say that I've learned a few things which have the potential to explain a lot and that I hope they shed some light on things for others as well.

This is going to be a hard post to write, not because it is going to be emotionally charged, but because it's going to almost certainly blind people with science. One of the hardest things for people to abandon when they think about psychology is the idea that it is inextricably linked to biology, and biology, my friends, is where weight issues live. The reason for this difficulty, at least in my opinion, is that we are mired in the idea of Cartesian dualism. We believe that somehow the mind exists apart from the body. Even when we imagine ourselves as scientifically minded modern thinkers, we continue to believe that mind can triumph over matter and that we can accomplish anything if we just "try hard enough." Quite often, our notions do not match our scientific understanding because we staunchly refuse to believe that a strong will cannot overcome all.

Getting back to baffling you with science, I've been studying the brain as of late. It's a topic which I've touched on before in this blog, but not in intricate detail. I strongly believe that the physical nature of our mind as expressed through how pathways are laid out in the brain is created by experience. We sometimes come into this world somewhat broken and sometimes we are broken by what happens to us. Lately, I've been learning a thing or two about just how one can be broken by childhood stress, and that can happen in such a way as to affect the rest of your life.

One of the many aspects of the brain that I've been studying has been something called the HPA Axis. For those who care, this is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. You don't have to understand it, but just believe me when I say that it is an important part of your brain when it comes to stress management and anxiety. When you are a child, if you experience the wrong kind of stress, and I don't mean abuse or serious trauma, your HPA Axis can become compromised in such a way as to create a high likelihood of a variety of disorders.

The HPA Axis is responsible for handling stress hormones and there is a "loop" of activity which handles a negative stimulation, activation of bodily systems to handle the stress of it, and then puts an end to that activation. I'm massively oversimplifying here, but anyone who wants to learn more knows how to do a Google search or ten and can get more details.

The bottom line is that early childhood issues such as insecure attachment to parents, chronic unresolved stress, neglect (even moderate), etc. can create issues in this area of the brain. There are multiple potential consequences including the potential to suffer anxiety disorders and depression. This is, in simplistic terms, due to over-activity in the HPA axis. Another, and this is a theory, but it's a plausible one, is that you can become a compulsive eater.

The way this works is that imbalances in the HPA axis which result in over-activity (from stress) can be slowed down by eating comfort food. Food that is high in carbohydrates in particular can produce more endogenous opiods (e.g., endorphins) and stimulate reward pathways. You can, quite literally, become addicted to food.

Here is the thing, once the HPA Axis is screwed up due to childhood experience, it cannot be made normal again. There is nothing you can do to repair the balance to what it should have been had you not had the stressors that created the imbalance. You can try to replace your food addiction and find something else to stimulate the same pathways such that you slow down the over-activity, but you will never be normal like other people.

The possibilities for replacement are hardly numerous, but they do have some effect. Drugs for depression or anxiety may help as they can have an impact on the HPA Axis, though some of them carry greater risks than overeating. Exercise, which also produces endorphins, can also be of help, though the levels you may need cannot necessarily be consistently sustained throughout the day and if you need consistent "medicating" to combat the imbalances, then it isn't enough to merely work out once a day, not to mention hard exercising can be side-lined at any time by physical injury.

This information came as a breath of fresh air to me, though it is also somewhat difficult to live with. The reason I believe I have been able to lose weight this time (and under circumstances in which I could not exercise) was because I kept eating food for pleasure. I eat small portions about 5 or 6 times a day, and I "treat" myself in small ways often. I trade off on portion sizes of healthy food at times to eat things I enjoy. I think I do this because of this imbalance in my brain which was brought on by my very hard upbringing.

The reason this is a breath of fresh air is that it validates the fact that I can't simply be a food puritan as people think I "should" be in a way which makes sense scientifically and emotionally. I eat to survive psychologically as well as biologically, and I have a richer understanding of why that is the case for me when it is not the case for others. I don't just "love food". I am not weak willed. I'm biologically messed up in a way that I didn't have anything to do with.

That is not to say that eating is my only "medication", nor that I may not be able to correct at least some of this biochemical imbalance through other means (such as cognitive rewiring techniques, exercise, and all of the other things I've talked about in this blog). However, I do feel I have a fundamental problem which cannot be addressed in the way in which society dictates. By knowing this, I can "manage" my problem by allowing portion-controlled access to comfort food as well as engage in continued management of stress and my outlook on life.

It is imperative that I not self-judge (as so many would have me do), but treat this as as much of an "illness" as any physical one. Sure, I could go to a psychiatrist and pop some pills, but those pills (and trust me that I know this well) are just as likely to bring on weight gain through other issues (metabolic disturbances, thyroid problems) as my self-medicating with small amounts of comfort food. However, I also need to be aware that I am constantly at risk, especially when I am stressed and depressed as I have been.

I'm talking about this because, if I have any readers out there who are also compulsive eaters (and I remain one, though that state is often in remission relative to what it once was), I want you to know that you may have an HPA axis problem as well and that you are not simply lacking in willpower and self-control. You may be struggling to deal with an imbalance and have a bona fide biological addiction to food which is little different than the addiction that anxiety sufferers experience when they are taking benzodiazepines (a highly addictive anti-anxiety drug that is very difficult to wean people off of). You can manage this by moderating your consumption of food and managing frequency as well as managing stress and exercising, but chances are that any sort of super strict diet of deprivation will almost certainly fail you.


Jan said...

Well what an interesting read. I might add that most of your articles are a great read and I learn something each time. I will take some time to think on the ideas you have written and might even do a litte research myself, just because I have the time and I like to check things out. I can really see that your take on this subject is highly plausible and fits in with my life story. It has been my great fortune to come across you and be able to breath in some refreshingly new, more believable answers to my lifelong problem. thanks

Sandy Daigler said...

Thanks for this post. The reasons why we struggle with weight are complex and the idea that someone can just "eat a sensible diet and exercise moderately" and -- poof! -- everything will be all right, is just plain wrong. What I'm finding is that even once you find something that works for you, it doesn't work forever, so I always have to be on my toes.