Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

The Power Shower: Washing Stress and Pounds Away

A shower strategy for weight loss? Seriously? Seriously!
Marty Nemko
This post is a response to Fast Ways to Boost Your Brainpower by Marty Nemko, Ph.D.

The problem compulsive overeaters have with food is part of a larger systemic problem with daily living. Articulating that problem would require volumes of writing, even if it were possible. The reasons individuals compulsively overeat are as various as the individuals themselves. There are global commonalities though. Compulsive eaters are under stress. Most likely they are in allosstatic load, which means their self-protective mechanisms have become self-destructive from over usage. Allostatic load is another term for stressed out. When one is stressed out, one needs to decrease the stress. I have found a simple effective way of mitigating stress. I call it the Power Shower.

Showering is a daily event. Now that the 70’s and 80’s are over, we generally shower alone, so it is a daily little chunk of “me and the Universe time.” I believe in a long shower. A long shower is not synonymous with excessive water usage. The world is in a water crisis, and an organism cannot be any healthier than its environment. You cannot save yourself and kill the planet. If you achieve optimal health, it won’t last long without water to drink. Always get the big picture: keep your heart in the heat of battle and your head in the purpose of the war.

The brain prefers order and visually pleasing spaces, so tweaking your shower space is the first order of business. Make it as nice as possible, but it does not have to become a Patrician-worthy bath in Ancient Rome. However, exotic humidity-loving plants, adjustable lighting, simplicity, neatness and scented candles go a long way. Do not overly focus on this because it is of secondary importance. The cardinal concerns are stretching, singing and imagination.

The next step is making your power shower soundtrack. Use songs that inspire you, because they generate dopamine (the brain’s happy-dance drug) and utilize the same reward circuitry as food, sex, and addictive drug. Two songs I recommend including in your soundtrack are: “I’m Beautiful” by Bette Midler and “Amazing Grace” by The Five Blind Alabama Boys.  

Using fMRI, researchers discovered that music we like causes dopamine release in the striatum. Further research found that the anticipation of particularly moving parts of a song caused a dopamine spike. No surprise there, dopamine is released in anticipation of reward. Dopamine is the neurochemical most associated with the brain doing its happy dance. Everybody, especially compulsive overeaters, need their brains doing as much happy dancing as possible.    

Your shower begins by getting your stretch on. Turn on your sound track and start stretching, while being mindful to breathe deep and rhythmically. Stretching is extremely important because it increases circulation. The better the blood circulates the healthier a body is. Circulation also helps with pain. Pain occurs in the body, whereas suffering occurs in the mind. Sustained bodily pain becomes suffering, and endured suffering becomes bodily pain. This synergistic symbiosis is greater than most of us understand. Unexplained bodily pain is just suffering at a somatic level.   

 

Singing has other neurochemical benefits. It releases endorphins, the body’s internal morphine, which is another one of the brain’s natural happy-dance substances. We also release oxytocin when we sing. Oxytocin is the hormone that causes mothers to bond with their infants. Oxytocin reduces anxiety and mitigates stress as well. Studies have found that oxytocin also fights depression. Furthermore, the benefits of regular singing have a positive cumulative affect on cortisol levels. Scientists measure cortisol to determine stress levels.  Studies have shown that subjects who sing regularly, over time, have lower cortisol levels. Lower cortisol levels are an indication of less stress.

The roots of song run deep in humans. Spoken language evolved from song because we could sing, long before we could talk. Scientifically defined, a song is “a sound animals make during mating season to attract mates or defend territory.” Before mothers talk to their babies, they sing to them. When an infant cries, instinctually we pick them up and sing to them. Incidentally, not just humans sing, many species sing. Insects and birds sing voraciously. Various whales, mice, squirrels, toads, gibbons, apes etc. sing as well. Of the singing creatures, aside from Justin Bieber, the most interesting is the water boatman, who sings by rubbing his penis against his belly. Imagine if human penises could sing or worst yet talk. 

Anyway, back on the farm, well the plantation actually, the powerful Negro slave spiritual is not a coincidence. The slaves sang those deep abdominal songs because there were no crack houses, Krispy Kreme Donuts, or McDonald’s on the plantation. They sang for survival. The oxytocin and endorphins generated by singing is a winning combination, the endorphins give you energy, and the oxytocin keeps you calm. My grandmother, who worked in the cotton fields until shortly before her death sang with unbelievable power. It came from some place deep in her abdomen. Her entire body would rock when she would start singing. I remember sitting on her porch one day, when she and some of her women friends came from the fields. They sat down and started to sing, as they snapped green beans. They did not begin with a song, per se.  They started out with just deep humming and moaning. In retrospect, it is obvious that they were self-medicating with it. 

That is how the Power Shower utilizes singing—as medicine—for what ails you. You would not take a shower without being physically naked. In the Power Shower, you must also be willing to get spiritually and mentally naked. "When you sings child, sings from way on down deep, that’s how we’ze sing” as my grandmother used to say. When you’re singing to heal, your voice is just a vessel, it is your neuropeptides that are wailing “from way down deep.” 

As the deep abdominal singing occurs, the things that hurt you most will surface and appear in your visual cortex in the form of faint images. In this instance, you will hold the past and the future in your hands. In this moment, you make the decision, to let it go or hold onto it, or just hold onto some of it. You just have to work with it. Singing is a gift the universe gave to certain species. Like any extremely precious gift, you must handle it mindfully, and learn how to use it.  

Once you have finished singing and soaping up, turn the water on.  As the water rinses away the soap on your body, close your eyes, and imagine your “surface blues”, i.e. current sources of immediate anxiety, e.g. a large bill you cannot pay, or a cheating spouse, or a terrible haircut. Do not judge me, when all else is removed the haircut remains, so a terrible haircut has extensive ramifications. Now who’s shallow? Moving on, as you imagine your anxiety washing away, listen for the silence in the air. Learning to hear silence is a spiritual accomplishment; the silence between sounds, create the magic of music.  

We all have grief and nobody knows who lays awake at night and who does not. Nobody knows what terrifies you and why. What we do know, is that we go out into the day and interact with each other, the more centered we are, the better we feel. The better we feel, the better suited we are to understand and divest personal interest in the stressful events of our day. The less stress, and more centered we are, the more productive we are in our work, kinder to others, and available to see the abounding beauty in life. What you persistently see you become, so see a beautiful you, with a clean mind, body, and soul, in a world that is getting kinder and more beautiful every day. Power is a state of mind, work in, play in it, shower it, and stay in it. Remain fabulous and phenomenal.  

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is  Co-Investigator in the  Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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