Your Toolbelt Blog

Hungry Like the Wolf

In Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s an acronym they use to remind people when they might be most susceptible to relapse and it’s called HALT. HALT stands for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” You don’t have to be an alcoholic to be negatively impacted by HALT, in fact, I would go so far as to say that most of us are negatively impacted by HALT. Yesterday, I covered why “tired” sets you up for disaster, and today I’ll be addressing “hungry” and our digestion in general.

How are our gut and our anxiety and depression related?  The stomach, according to Michael Gershon, M.D., author of The Second Brain, is really like our bodies’ second brain, playing host to most of the same neurotransmitters that our brain contains. In fact, 95% of the serotonin in our bodies is in our gut. Now, likely, many of you have heard of serotonin as the “feel good” chemical in our brains, but now you know why it is we get “butterflies” in our stomachs, we have a “gut” feeling about something, and why our stomachs churn when we feel anxious. It is also why, for those of us who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), small doses of an SSRI medication (antidepressants), can help alleviate the symptoms associated with IBS.  So, it is really truly true, that if our guts don’t feel good, we don’t feel good. Period.

So, how does hunger, and, relatedly, indigestion, become a trigger for us?  Back to my example of yesterday, of having a long stressful day and skipping lunch because of work: skipping meals, or going too long between meals, causes an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in our stomachs, which communicates distress to our brains. In addition, our blood sugar levels crash without consistent fuel, leaving us light headed, irritable, anxious, and yes, depressed.  So, the next time you snap at a coworker, do a mental check of when was the last time you ate.

What you eat is critical, too. I hear all kinds of horror stories from my clients who work in the corporate world of break rooms filled with doughnuts, cookies, chips, and other empty promises. And, who doesn’t have a coworker who insists on having a candy bowl at their desk?  It’s quick, it’s easy, and when your blood sugar levels are crashing, it’s downright seductive. But reaching for a carb–either sugar or starch– is a sure fire way to exacerbate the situation. Carbs do give you immediate gratification in the form of an energy kick, but you soon will find yourself crashing even lower than before. Also, sugar, in any form,  stresses the body, which depletes your resources dedicated to healing and rejuvenation.  It is not a stretch to make the point that sugar leads to anxiety, biochemically alone.

But, we don’t just eat sugar and starches and suffer the biochemical reactions, we also tend to mentally jump all over ourselves for indulging in what we know to be “junk food.” The negative self-talk we inflict on ourselves can be just as and sometimes more damaging than the carb itself.  Women and men both often put themselves through mental gymnastics over whether or not they should be hungry, whether or not they should do something about that hunger, and then, a veritable roasting when we disappoint ourselves with our food choices. And, who feels good about themselves after they’ve just read themselves the riot act?

While it’s outside the scope of this posting to get into all the ins and outs of why we overeat, eat compulsively, binge eat, or otherwise eat destructively, let me just say, that what you tell yourself about your eating is much more important than any particular diet plan you’ll ever choose to follow. A great resource for those of you interested in addressing your mental habits around food is: The Beck Diet Solution by Judith Beck, who, by the way, is the daughter of Aaron Beck, one of the founders of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

So, ultimately, hunger and our dance with food, can be catalysts for anxiety and depression. Pay attention to your eating habits—are you skipping meals? Are you indulging in empty promise foods too often? Are you digesting your food well? What do you tell yourself about your food and your eating habits? These are all important questions to consider in mitigating the trigger of hunger on your mood.

Again, I invite questions, comments to what I’ve just written today.

I’ll try to get to Trigger #3 by the end of this week. Until then, “breathe in, breathe out” (Bush).

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