HEALTH

The Stress/Weight Gain Connection And How To Break The Cycle

Our ancient brain pathways take over when we're stressed.

09/12/2016 11:52 AM AEDT | Updated 12/12/2016 7:59 AM AEDT
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The human brain might be attuned to the buzz of a smartphone or the ping of a Facebook update but when it comes to stress, we revert to ancient pathways.

Neuroscientists are using our brain's deep seeded responses to determine the connection between weight gain and feeling stressed -- as well as how to break the cycle.

Queensland University of Technology professor Selena Bartlett said there was a simple explanation behind the weight gain/stress connection.

"Our brain responds to stress in an ancient way but it is possible to override it," Bartlett said.

"This is because we ignore our brain, which silently drives our behaviour as if we are still ancient humans living in prehistoric conditions.

The more stress you experience, the more your brain seeks pleasure to counter itSelena Bartlett

"In today's stressful world of work, finances, relationships, parenting and other responsibilities the body releases stress hormones like cortisol. Over time stress hormones significantly reduce the number of synapses in the brain. This in turn impacts our rational brain and can reduce our impulse control.

"To counteract the damage caused by stress hormones, the ancient, emotional part of our brain drives us to find pleasure. When we experience pleasure, our body is flooded with hormones like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These bind to receptors in the brain and reduce the damaging effect of stress hormones.

"So the more stress you experience, the more your brain seeks pleasure to counter it."

So stress damages the brain, but pleasure repairs it. Bartlett said that 'pleasure' often came in the form of food.

"When our ancient brain demands a pleasurable experience, it is common to reach for alcohol, sweet treats and comfort food," she said.

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Food is pleasure is love.

"This is a problem for two reasons -- they are high in calories leading to weight gain, and they are addictive."

So how do you counteract your ancient brain's yearning for a finger bun?

Bartlett's book MiGGi Matters: How to train your brain to manage stress and trim your body has the following tips:

Be compassionate to your brain -- it is an amazing, ancient organ that can be severely damaged by stress, especially in childhood while it is developing.

Get to know the brain -- an awareness of how the ancient amygdala drives your behaviour is critical to overriding unhealthy impulses.

Identify when your amygdala is taking over or when you're having a "MiGGi moment" (MiGGi being sorthand for the primitive brain) -- in stressful situations acknowledge when you're suddenly taken by the urge to eat comforting food, smoke or drink alcohol.

Replace food and alcohol with movement -- deep breathing, stretching, walking, running; any movement that feels good.

Reduce sugar and alcohol intake and increase cardiovascular and high intensity exercise -- these will help to heal your brain of its stress-induced damage and build a strong, healthy body.

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