Retraining the brain to beat stress is the key to losing weight and keeping it off, a leading Australian neuroscientist says.
There’s overwhelming evidence that many people who lose weight through dieting quickly regain it and, according to Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation’s Selena Bartlett, this is because people have learned to ignore their brain — an organ that has been dictating behaviour since prehistoric times — and have accepted emotional eating that comes with living an over-stressed lifestyle.
Professor Bartlett said diets could in fact make us fatter and more stressed.
‘‘When we are stressed our brain seeks pleasure and that’s the problem,’’ Prof Bartlett said.
And the more stress you experience, the more your brain seeks pleasure to counter it.
Choosing to beat stress in order to lose weight has long been advocated by US neuroscientist Caroline Leaf.
‘‘Thoughts are real things that occupy mental real estate,’’ she said during her 2015 TEDx talk on the power of our thoughts.
According to Dr Leaf, if a person chooses to react wrongly to a challenging situation, they enter stage two of the stress reaction.
‘‘During this stage, high levels of cortisol circulate in the blood for extended periods of time, in turn contributing to prolonged high blood sugar that can also lead to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes and weight gain, since prolonged high levels of cortisol lead to the accumulation of fat instead of fat breakdown.
‘‘In this toxic situation, fat tends to accumulate around the middle of the body and is a risk factor for heart disease,’’ Dr Leaf wrote.
In fact, prolonged, high levels of cortisol can lead to Cushing’s syndrome — characterised by fat accumulation around the middle and back of the human body.
The good news is that it’s possible to override the way the amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, responds to stress,’’ Prof Bartlett said.
‘‘When the rational brain is in charge, sustainable weight loss is possible.’’
Prof Bartlett's Five-Step Plan
Be compassionate to your brain: It is an amazing organ that can be severely damaged by stress, especially in childhood while it’s developing.
Get to know the brain: An awareness of how the amygdala — an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobes — drives your behaviour is critical to overriding unhealthy impulses.
Identify when your amygdala is taking over in stressful situations and acknowledge when you’re tempted by the urge to eat comforting food, like sugar.
Replace food and alcohol with deep breathing, stretching, walking, running or any movement that feels good.
Reduce sugar and alcohol intake and increase cardiovascular and high intensity exercise: These will help to heal your brain of its stress-induced damage and build a strong, healthy body.