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Your Introduction to the Mind-Body Connection

Meghan Helbick, MS, RDN, LDN

Imagine you’re about to get up on stage in front of hundreds of people who will be hanging on your every word.  Your boss is there, and a promotion is hanging on the speech you’re about to give. But you forgot your notes!

Just thinking about being in that situation is enough to get some peoples’ hearts racing, palms sweating and holding their breath.  Go on, check yourself!

What just happened?  Words on the screen triggered the thought of a nerve-wracking experience (that isn’t remotely real).  But your body physically responded. That’s the mind-body connection at work, and it has big implications for our health and even weight loss!

How Are Mind and Body Connected?

As taught in the Noom curriculum, our thoughts trigger emotions.  Emotions are not just ideas, but physical chemical signals produced by the body that travel all through the bloodstream.  These chemical signals cause physical changes in the body that affect the activities our bodies are ready for in that moment.  

Let’s take the above example of giving an important speech without notes.  You’re experiencing the emotion of stress, and the body is showing the fight-or-flight response.  Some of these signs you can feel – racing heart, sweating, shallow breathing. At the same time, blood sugar is rising, blood flow is shifting from your midsection (digestive organs) to your limbs.  These are all signs that your sympathetic nervous system is switched on.

Emotions can also help us relax – think gratitude, or love – and they, too, have a physical impact.  The immune system is boosted even just witnessing acts of kindness. Signs that you’re in a relaxed mode, or parasympathetic mode, are deeper breathing, relaxed muscles, and a slower heart rate.

Yes, emotions affect the body physically, and the reverse is true as well!  The state of health and balance in the body, including what we feed it, can impact our mood and emotions.  The neurotransmitters and hormones released when we feel certain emotions are made of proteins. The transmission of these is done with the help of certain kinds of fat.  And many different vitamins help in the creation and signaling of these chemicals that influence our mood.

These influences on our mood can either be positive or negative.  And – you guessed it – the whole, unprocessed foods, many of which are plants, along with a balanced diet tend to have a positive impact.  Added sugars, processed fats, and little variety can lean toward creating more of that stress chemistry.

Why is this important?

Okay, so our body and food impacts our emotions, and our emotions impact our body.  But how does this impact weight?!

Let’s start with stress.  Originally, the stress response was designed to be useful.  If a lion was after you, it’d be beneficial to have a quick energy source from higher blood sugar, and more energy in your limbs to fight or flee.  Of course, that won’t help you much with that speech, but evolution doesn’t know that.

Our fight-or-flight stress response was built for short-term dangers that physically put us in danger.  When that threat is gone, so is the stress. These days, our stresses are not usually physical, but mental or emotional.  And those don’t tend to go away so quickly. Many of us are chronically, or long-term, stressed. And you can bet that impacts our physiology, health, and even the ability to lose weight!

Good old cortisol is linked to higher body fat, especially around the midsection.  Yup – belly fat! Chronic stress may contribute to more belly fat storage, which also happens to be the type of fat that puts us more at risk for chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease.  Yikes!

When we lead stressful lives, we tend to compound the problem by eating in a rush, on the go, whenever we can grab something edible.  But eating while we’re stressed, or eating too quickly, actually do the opposite of what most of us want. Remember that stress means our bodies are primed to run or fight something.  Blood flows away from our digestive system, and the body isn’t focused on producing the many digestive enzymes we need to properly digest our food. So it might feel food is just sitting in your stomach.  

On top of that, when we’re not paying attention, the brain doesn’t start the digestion process like it normally would, and it doesn’t register what or how much we’re eating.  It may “forget” that we ever ate, which can send us running to the kitchen all day and all through the night. That isn’t the goal for most of us!

The good news is, we can use the mind-body connection to consciously change our behavior toward getting into a relaxed mode before and while we eat.  And it’s so simple! Just breathe! A few deep breaths into the belly and full exhales flips the switch from stress mode to relax mode. Suddenly your body is primed to fully digest and experience your food, which can decrease cortisol, and over time can impact your health and weight!  On top of that, your attention on your food will allow your brain to register eating, and make it that much easier to stop the mindless snacking the rest of the day!

So step away from the computer, take some deep breaths, and eat your meal or snack in peace!

Author: Meghan Helbick, MS, RDN, LDN

 

Sources:

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn/depts/bcn/Our-research/Cells-behaviour/thuret-adult-neurogenesis/assets/Br-Med-Bull-2012-Zainuddin-bmblds021.pdf
https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Stress+and+body+shape%3A+stress-induced+cortisol+secretion+is+consistently+greater+among+women+with+central+fat. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/stress-and-the-sensitive-gut
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30066255
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10072-016-2790-8