Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

There Are No Victims, Only Volunteers

Brain solutions for the jingle bell blues

Merry Christmas—let me begin there.  For the wealthy, today is a day for gathering, opening presents, and sharing fine food and beverages with family and friends.  For the equally wealthy, but less financially fortunate, today is a day for gathering, opening fewer or no presents, and sharing regular food and drink with family and friends.  Then there are the poor, some of whom are not financially fortunate, others who are, but in either case, today is a painful reminder of the absence of family and friends.

Many compulsive overeaters find themselves in the latter category for various reasons.  Some of us choose not to spend time with our families because they are too toxic; some of us are simply too large to travel or entertain; some of us are not welcome at our family gatherings; some of us have been abandoned by spouses, family, lovers and friends.  However, not only obese people have the “jingle bell blues” today.  Many people feel especially sad and lonely today.  Tears of sorrow will fall all over the world today, for various reasons. 

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Most compulsive overeaters are alone because isolating is a part of the disease process.   Shedding a harsher light on our circumstances might show that spouses, lovers, families, and friends did not abandon us, per se, but rather their perceived abandonment is really just collateral damage of our abandoning our selves.  Regardless of how we got to this place, this is where we are today.  Therefore, we will deal with today’s concerns because the past and the future are only valid when they are the present. 

The first order of business is to trick your brain into thinking you are happy.   The brain is very busy, so that is not that hard to accomplish.  A part of the brain doing its job effectively is being able to anticipate the appropriate responses to situations.  One of the ways it does this is by advance interpretation of certain cues from the body.  That will work to our advantage today.  

Now, take a pencil, put it in your mouth, lengthwise, and bite down on it.   The muscles that you use to do this are the same muscles you use to smile.  When you bite down on the pencil, your brain will think, “Oh we’re smiling, we must be happy—let’s do our happy dance.”   To do its happy dance, the brain releases some dopamine, its feel good, happy dance, drug. I will spare you the precise neural details—consider it a surprise Christmas gift.

Now the next thing is going to be counterintuitive. Do some type of exercise.  It does not have to be, as a matter-of-fact it should not be, some yucky, non-festive, gym-class, type of calisthenics.  If you like to walk, take a walk.  If you do not like to walk or cannot walk, then do something else, like dance.  Put on some music, and dance. 

If standing up and dancing is not possible, then sit and dance—use your arms, and give some deep neck and shoulder action.  Dance is all about attitude anyway.  Trust me, I’m Black and American Indian.  My people have danced their way through some horrible times. This physical movement will release endorphins. Endorphins are your brain’s internal, homemade, morphine; the holidays are all about homemade stuff—right?  More importantly, this will turn your brain’s happy dance up a notch.  

The next order of business is also going to be counterintuitive; it is time to sing. Humans could sing before they could talk.  Think about it.  Mothers sing to their babies before they talk to them.  Singing is rhythmical, and involves deep breathing.  When you sing, the vibrations from singing move throughout your body, which is your subconscious mind. (Read “Molecule of Emotion” by Candace Pert, Ph.D.). The vibrations from singing change your body and subsequently, your emotions.  Emotions are not static events like weather conditions, but rather, ongoing systems like climates.   That is why you should sing every day, not just on Christmas.  It was not a coincidence that the American Negro slaves sang those great spirituals.  It was their medicine from the God within, i.e., the neuropeptides.  

Singing is the perfect drug for a bluesy day.  It calms you down, while lifting your spirits.  This is partly because of the endorphin and oxytocin release that occurs when you sing. Endorphins cause elation, which provides you with that “up” feeling.  Since it is following your dancing or exercising, your endorphins are going to be flowing already—so this is just adding some more fuel to that fire.  After all, it is a holiday, and we are celebrating. Oxytocin mitigates anxiety and stress. I will spare you the neurophysiology—yet another holiday treat from me.  Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding.  When the brain detects increases in oxytocin, it thinks, “Oh yea, oxytocin! We’re bonding, time to feel safe and connected.”

Research continuously finds that singing decreases depression and loneliness.  There are also evolutionary implications that singing serves some subcortical regions of the old brain because singing developed as a social tool that humans used to gather cooperatively, which is vital to a social species.  Therefore, singing is healing on multiple levels of the mind, body and soul.   Of course, you will have to take the pencil out of your mouth to truly belt one out.  So, to quote my grandmother, in church, when she was listening to the choir, “Sang it chillun, while I pats my foot!”  

On that note, have a merry, merry, Christmas from Obesely Speaking.  Remain fabulous and phenomenal.  

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is Chair of the Advisory Committee for Collective Concerns in Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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