Often when we eat, we are eating for reasons other than being hungry. We eat for emotional reasons. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. But while doing some research for my last post on oxytocin (and the book I’m writing), I came across something extraordinary. The brain circuit for eating overlaps with the brain circuit for interpersonal relationships. The neurobiology suggests that improving social relationships can help you lose weight. There may even be a few ways to trick the brain to achieve the same effect.
As I pointed out in my last post, the neurotransmitter responsible for close, trusting relationships is oxytocin. Oxytocin is released by physical contact and supportive interactions with other people. Release of oxytocin increases feelings of trust and generosity. It also reduces feelings of stress and anxiety. Amazingly, the act of eating actually releases oxytocin (Kendrick 1988). In fact eating releases oxytocin in dopamine rich brain areas, which helps explain why eating can be soothing and pleasurable. Thus, part of the reason we’re drawn to emotional eating is that eating mimics the same feelings of comfort we get from close friends and family.
Other evidence for the overlap of eating circuits and social circuits comes from experiments on rats. Oxytocin actually causes weight loss in overweight rats (Morton 2012). Even more recent evidence in humans shows that oxytocin actually helps reduce snacking (Ott 2013). That study found that oxytocin particularly reduced munching on chocolate cookies. I can personally relate to that because all throughout grad school when I got stressed after hours of sitting alone at my computer I would take a cookie break. Maybe I was just looking for social support.
So if you’re trying to reduce snacking and lose weight try boosting your oxytocin. And the best way to do that is to improve the quality and closeness of your relationships with family, friends and significant others. Isn’t that a simple suggestion? Yes, I know that problems with these relationships is often what triggers emotional eating in the first place. So as a temporary measure, while you’re working on your relationships here are a few ways to boost your serotonin that don’t involve snacking.
1. Get a massage. Physical contact with another person is the surest way of boosting oxytocin. If you’re not in a relationship it can be difficult to accomplish that. If you are in a relationship, then yes, your partner is a great source of oxytocin, but don’t rely on getting all your oxytocin from one person. Getting a massage releases large amounts of oxytocin, and will help you de-stress and be your best self (Lund 2002).
2. Say or do something nice for a friend. When other people trust and rely on you it boosts your oxytocin (Zak 2005). Showing support for someone else helps that happen.
3. Pet a dog. Petting a dog, whether it’s yours or someone else’s can help increase oxytocin. In fact, furry pets in general can increase oxytocin. Part of it is their furry warmth, and part of it, particularly with dogs, is their trust in you (Odendaal 2003). Being trusted helps increase oxytocin whether it’s a person or a dog.
4. Hug a friend. Ask a friend for a long hug, or ask them if they would like a hug. Hugs, particularly long ones, release oxytocin. In fact frequent hugging not only increases oxytocin, it also decreases blood pressure (Light 2005)
5. Have a conversation (in person or on the phone). The human voice can release oxytocin in ways that the written (or texted word) doesn’t (Seltzer 2012).
6. Have a warm cup of tea wrapped in a blanket. To clarify, you are wrapped in the blanket and not the tea. Physical warmth helps promote feelings of trust and generosity (Williams 2008).
If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time
Kendrick, K. et al, 1988. Brain Research.
Light, K. et al, 2005. Biological Psychology
Morton, G. et al, 2012. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab
Odendaal, J. and Meintjes, R., 2003. The Veterinary Journal.
Ott, V. et al, 2013. Diabetes.
Seltzer, L. et al, 2012. Evolution and Human Behavior.
Williams, L. and Bargh, J., 2008. Science.
Zak, P. et al, 2005. Hormones and Behavior.