What we choose to eat often extends far beyond sustenance – it reflects our emotional needs, coping mechanisms, and even the state of our nervous systems. Food can easily become a source of comfort, control, and connection. Yet, the link between food choices and the state of our nervous systems is often unexplored.

The autonomic nervous system functions as a personal surveillance system, constantly evaluating our surroundings for potential threats to our safety. This subconscious monitoring for danger persists regardless of whether we consciously recognize any hazards or threats. Interestingly, food consumption can offer a transient sense of security because it activates neural pathways similar to those engaged during social engagement, indicative of a regulated nervous system state. Consequently, behaviors such as binge eating frequently emerge as efforts to manage emotions when other coping mechanisms prove ineffective.

Will-Power Might Not be Enough

Sharoni Tsarafi, a clinical psychologist, told the Epoch Times that when the nervous system is dysregulated, parts of the brain become disconnected on a neuro-physiological level. Many individuals find it difficult to think clearly and make decisions that are aligned with their goals and values when they go into a survival state. This is because the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thought, tends to become disconnected. Consequently, access to higher-order thinking processes is impeded. Tsarafi notes that during dysregulation, individuals often seek solace or engage in impulsive behaviors that contradict their values. This may manifest in poor food choices, she adds.

Virtually everyone tends to make suboptimal food choices when experiencing dysregulation, Tabitha Hume, Registered Dietician-Nutritionist, told the Epoch Times. In states of anxiety or depression, the brain instinctively craves substances that can boost serotonin levels, such as fast-releasing or high glycemic index carbohydrates. These carbohydrates rapidly elevate blood glucose levels, prompting the brain to increase serotonin production, thereby inducing feelings of calmness and control.

There exists a compelling rationale behind individuals with dysregulated nervous systems seeking solace in food for self-regulation. As evidenced by a 2016 study published in the Journal of Brain Structure and Function, the consumption of highly palatable foods has been shown to diminish both emotional and physiological reactions to stress. The study revealed that a controlled intake of sucrose, comprising 4ml of 30 percent sucrose consumed twice daily over a span of 14 days, resulted in a reduction of HPA-axis activation in response to stressors.

Hume emphasizes that for individuals prone to serotonin imbalances, eliminating carbohydrates from their diet could exacerbate existing issues significantly. This dietary shift may precipitate heightened levels of anxiety, aggression, or irritability, as commonly observed with Banting and Keto diets. Moreover, it may set the stage for a rebound binge-eating pattern over time. “Cutting calories or carbohydrates while increasing protein and fats is leading to a myriad of issues, particularly among young girls who may not fully grasp the importance of carbohydrates for optimal brain function,” Hume asserts. In her clinical practice, Hume has discovered that “demonizing carbohydrates is perhaps one of the most appalling things ever.” While acknowledging the importance of moderating sugar intake, she underscores the necessity of incorporating a consistent supply of wholesome, slow-releasing carbohydrates throughout the day to maintain stable plasma blood glucose levels.

Dysregulated Nervous Systems and Eating Disorders

Hume points out that individuals with profiles marked by anxiety, depression, or attention deficit disorder (where dopamine levels may be low) often gravitate toward intensely flavorful foods, opting for items rich in salt and sugar. Upon realizing that their preferred foods may contribute to weight gain, they may experience anxiety about overconsumption and subsequently feel compelled to impose dietary restrictions. This initial concern can swiftly transform into an obsession with carbohydrate or calorie reduction. However, such dietary limitations can precipitate a drop in blood sugar levels, leading to a corresponding decrease in serotonin levels. This cascade of events may set the stage for a cycle of binge eating followed by starvation, potentially culminating in conditions such as bulimia or binge eating disorder, according to Hume’s observations.

Interestingly enough, patients with Anorexia nervosa show an over-activation of the parasympathetic system and a decrease in sympathetic activity, according to a 2020 study. The link between the altered functioning of the autonomic nervous system and eating disorders has also been proven in the Frontiers of Neuroscience, showing parasympathetic overactivation and sympathetic withdrawal in anorexia nervosa and fasting bulimia nervosa patients. Tsarafi states that periods of heightened emotional dysregulation can serve as sensitive triggers for binge eating episodes, as individuals with bulimia frequently express feeling profoundly out of control and internally chaotic just before engaging in binge-eating behaviors.

Food Alleviates Anxiety and Discomfort

As per a 2002 study published in Behavioural Processes, eating has been shown to alleviate anxiety and discomfort. The mechanisms behind this phenomenon seem to be linked to the impact of carbohydrates and protein on serotonin synthesis in the brain. Another study has revealed that stress, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is associated with metabolic dysfunction and obesity. Potential factors contributing to this connection include the dysregulation of the HPA-axis, activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and the release of stress hormones, all of which impact both brain and metabolic processes. Hence, it’s unsurprising that early-life adversity is linked with conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

Develop Emotional Awareness by Naming Your Feelings

When grappling with emotional regulation, Tsarafi suggests that a crucial starting point is to guide individuals in identifying their emotions and reclaiming a sense of control over feelings that may have seemed overwhelming and chaotic. Central to this process is the development of emotional awareness and recognition, laying a foundation for further progress. In her practice, Tsarafi employs practical tools rooted in dialectical behavioral therapy, offering concrete strategies for managing identified emotions effectively.

She underscores the transformative power of emotional identification, noting that the simple act of accurately labeling one’s emotions initiates a regulatory process (“naming is taming”). This process, she explains, serves to re-engage the frontal lobes of the brain, thereby restoring cognitive clarity and enhancing decision-making abilities.

Putting negative feelings into words can help regulate negative experiences, a process that may ultimately contribute to better mental and physical health. The results of a 2007 study in the Journal of Psychological Science showed that affect labelling diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images and it further increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain).

Rather than vilifying non-hunger eating, a more nuanced approach involves shifting focus away from mere symptom reduction and instead exploring how individuals can effectively regulate themselves and employ alternative strategies to return to a state of safety and regulation instead.

A version of this article was published by the Epoch Times newspaper.

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