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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Overweight? Your Brain May not Know When to Stop

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 15th 2010

Most of us have experienced the kind of mindless eating where we're gobbling up handfuls of some snack food or another? However, it may not be because we're hungry. New brain research is finding that activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is important for orchestrating feelings hunger and satiation, is reduced in healthy weight people versus overweight people. In other words, overweight individuals are not getting the signals from the brain that they are actually full.

This is fascinating and at the same time leaves me wanting more information about what the factors are that carry on that activation in the amygdala even after enough food in ingested.

One thing we also know about the amygdala is that is has been called the "fear circuit." Fear is often the underlying emotion when it comes to anxiety.

So it would make sense that the underlying emotion that keeps the amygdala activated is some sort of fear or anxiety even with fullness present which then inhibits the amygdala from doing its job of sending the signal of satiation.

Then the question comes in, well, for some people being overweight is an issue with metabolism, while for others it may be an anxious behavior. So it may not be so clear cut.

Even so, it's good to be aware of so we can inquire into whether we're eating from a place of restlessness and boredom which anxiety lies beneath.

On a more practical note, these emotions are often experienced as thoughts in the mind, which some people call cravings and sensations in the body which some people call urges.

We might be able to trick the amygdala or fear circuit by learning to surf the urge as Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. says in his Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention programs. This is the process of bringing mindfulness to the physical reaction that is happening in the body and paying attention to it nonjudgmentally as it rises, peaks and begins to pass away.

In doing this we are no longer slaves to the misfiring in our brain and can take control over what our mind may realize is healthier for us.

Now, this is a practice, but with awareness around the neurological reasoning why we are not feeling full, we can gain some perspective and choose a different response (e.g. urge surfing).

Easier said than done, but with practice we become more aware of choice, begin to change our brains, and may create a path toward greater health and well-being.  

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom we can all benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Workô program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    could it be? - Cindy - Jul 16th 2010

    Mental illness medication packs pounds on just about everyone! how can there be weight loss if all those meds. slow you down.

     Mental illness medication have ruined my life, twice going off of them, helped me  to lose! then I realized, going back into the hospital soon after, I needed my meds.

     I'm shy, I have a hard time making friends, what do you think happened when I gained as much as two more of me?

    What I Wonder Though - Cathy - Jul 15th 2010

    What I wonder though in reading this is that a lot of overweight people "graze" versus eating 3 meals (or the 3 smaller meals with 2 small snacks) so maybe that is not the way that whatever thing in your brain can operate.  Even in eating a regular meal, they tell you to wait 5 minutes before eating that second serving because it takes that long before you can tell if you are full - in 5 minutes I can eat a lot of food and being really overfull a few minutes later.  So.........

    Easier said than done - janine - Jul 15th 2010

    The core message of bringing mindfulness to the feeling as it rises and falls away again is so hard to do in practise.

    The reward for not do, is not as strong as the reward for do.

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