A recent study by American and Italian neuroscientists sheds new light on why it may be so difficult to lose weight. Research results show that complex processes in the brain’s hypothalamus instruct you to eat enough to maintain your current weight, regardless of whether it is healthy or not. Once a heavier weight is the norm, your brain resets, accepting it as the norm.
The idea that eating habits are mentally hard-wired may seem discouraging, but this is actually great news, as it paves the way for innovative solutions involving mental training. Meditation is a powerful practice that can help you rise above the neurochemical impulses driving you to overeat, greatly increasing your chances of successfully losing weight naturally!
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain responsible for controlling your appetite; one of its many duties. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the aforementioned study identifies a cellular change in the brain – specifically within the neural networks of the hypothalamus – that goes along with obesity.
The change involves receptors that stimulate or inhibit the release of the orexin A peptide. One of the functions of this peptide is stimulating the appetite. When this receptor was activated in mice displaying healthy, normal weights, orexin A release was decreased. However, when the receptor was activated in obese mice, orexin A release was increased.
Ken Mackie, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, explains this phenomenon as follows: networks within the hypothalamus reset during obesity, and adjust to maintain the heavier weight, not the ideal weight.
This explains, in part, why it is so difficult for overweight and obese individuals to lose weight and keep it off, and the brain signals the body to eat more to return to the body size that has been instilled in neural networks. The good news is, as Mackie puts it, “this identified potential targets where an intervention could influence obesity.”
One powerful tool for such an intervention is meditation. Numerous studies have demonstrated meditation’s effectiveness in weight loss. Summarizing how this works, researcher Jennifer Daubenmier says, “you’re training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns – to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example… If you can first recognize what you are feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision.”
It follows this line of thought that if you are able to mindfully recognize that it is your brain’s chemistry driving you to overeat, you can overcome those urges, as your will – if properly trained – can be much stronger than physical impulses.
Daubenmier, along with a group of researchers at UC San Francisco, performed a small-scale study of 47 women classified as ‘obese’ to see if meditation could help them control their eating habits and lose weight.
The women were divided into two groups, and both groups were subsequently trained on the basics of diets and exercise. No specific dietary regimen was assigned to either group.
Half of the women, labeled the experimental group, received instruction in meditation (daily thirty minute sessions) and ‘mindful eating’ practices, in which they were taught to experience eating as a sensory sensation to be enjoyed in the moment. Experiment results showed that the women in the control group gained weight, and saw no reduction in their stress levels.
Conversely, the women in the experimental group maintained their weights, and significantly reduced their cortisol levels. High cortisol levels are a side effect frequently associated with high stress levels.
Unfortunately, this was a small-scale, short-term study, so results are limited in nature. However, according to Dr. Catherine Kerr, a meditation researcher at Brown University, “these findings are consistent with numerous brain studies showing that this practice of attending mindfully to the present moment experience brings about changes in the brain areas responsible for body sensations, especially body sensations related to hunger and craving… the idea here being that daily practice actually trains your brain to help you tune in to your body in a more healthy way.”
Indeed, with continued practice, healthy weight loss, not just avoidance of further weight gain, could theoretically be seen in the study’s participants, as well as anyone else who couples serious mindfulness meditation with a healthy diet.
When it comes to weight loss, it largely is an issue of mind over matter.
-The Alternative Daily