Emotional Eating – The Gut Brain Connection

brain gut

Last month in clinic, I met with a lovely lady who struggles with her weight. She lives a stressful life with numerous responsibilities. Food is comfort, convenience and her choices are usually unhealthy due to limitations of time and money. Growing up with a parent with addiction, her eating patterns were created long ago. She had tried many diets and failed. During my conversation, we discussed why we eat the way we do and how early programming, genetics and neurotransmitters dictate eating habits. Join our conversation on how the gut and brain are connected and how to fix it with an Integrative Approach.

Do you know why you overeat? Different brains drive different eating behaviors based on brain activity. The Amen Clinic uses SPECT Imaging to determine what type of overeater you may be. Also, a genetic blood test by Pathway Genomics ( Healthy Weight), can identify neurotransmitter gene snps that may create different patterns of eating. Here is an explanation of the what and why of emotional eating!

The Amen Clinic defines 5 Types of Overeaters:

Type 1: Compulsive– They get stuck  on thoughts of food. They have no control over food. Usually, they are night time eaters, worriers and have trouble sleeping. Food calls out to them. They must get their way, often argumentative, rigid and inflexible. They have trouble seeing options and holds grudges.

Brain Scans show increase activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus correlating with LOW SEROTONIN and people become stuck on negative thoughts or actions.

Integrative Fix: Low serotonin states can be reversed with exercise, walking, yoga, sunlight, regular meals, water, prayer and meditation. Work on introducing foods rich in tryptophan (eggs, tofu, turkey, salmon, nuts and seeds) and high fiber, fermented food for a healthy gut microbiome and a diet rich in omega 3 fats. Serotonin is primarily produced in the GI tract with the help of our good gut bacteria. Keep them happy and they will keep you happy!

Type 2: Impulsive- whenever they see something they like they can’t resist. Can’t say no even if they aren’t really hungry. Eat the second, third, fourth serving. One can’t have just one chip, one slice or a few of something, they tend to finish the whole container, bag or dish. This type is often associated with ADD, lack of focus and attention. Trying to elevate serotonin with medication makes the impulse control worse and they notice more impulsive eating behaviors.

Brain Scans show decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is related to low DOPAMINE states.

Integrative Fix: Natural dopamine elevators include protein rich diet (tyrosine, phenyalanine), less saturated fats, more fermented food and pre-biotics, sufficient mg+, Vit D,B3, B6, B9 and iron, music, meditation, sunlight, exercise regularly and sleep 7-8 hours. Dopamine is also made in the gastrointestinal tract, so a high fiber diet to improve your microbiome will have a direct impact on dopamine elevation.

Type 3: Both Compulsive and Impulsive– They think about food all day long, cannot stop focusing on food seeking and they also have no restraint to prevent them from eating large amounts of food. This can be associated with bulimia, gambling and alcoholism.

Brain scans show too much activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus and they get stuck with low SEROTONIN and low activity in the prefrontal cortex with low DOPAMINE levels.

Integrative Fix: Need to elevate both serotonin and dopamine with optimization of amino acids like tyrosine, tryptophan with a protein rich diet, fermented food, pre-biotic foods, adequate vitamins and minerals, sunlight, exercise, meditation, music and sleep.

Type 4: Depressed Overeater- This person usually medicates sadness with food. They struggle with boredom, loneliness, depression, low self esteem, pain, crying, low energy, and suicidal thoughts. Seasonal mood changes, dysthymia or major depression are more likely in women.

Brain scans show increased activity in the deep limbic areas of the brain where emotional trauma lives and decreased DOPAMINE activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Integrative Fix: Need to treat the underlying mood disorder. For serious conditions, it is necessary to have a medical team of psychiatrists, general practitioners, psychologists and health coaches to create a comprehensive plan that may include medications, nutrition plan, regular exercise, sleep hygiene, and supplements as mentioned above. Studies on mindful based stress reduction programs (MBSR) have shown to be beneficial in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially patients with previous trauma. Meditation and yoga are also great tools to help balance the emotional centers of the brain.

Type 5: Anxious Overeater-They medicate anxiety, tension, fear, nervousness, panic and self-doubt with food. They tend to predict the worst and wait for something bad to happen, made worse with negative thoughts, caffeine, alcohol.

Brain scan shows increased activity in the basal ganglia and low gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) states.

Integrative Fix:  One can elevate GABA naturally with breath work, yoga and meditation. Focusing on getting a proper 7-8 hours of sleep, engaging in stress reducing activities, a healthy gut microbiome and a nutrient rich diet with amino acids like L-glutamine and taurine, Vitamin B6, Zinc and Magnesium. Consider teas such as lavender, lemon balm, skull cap, valerian and green tea to increase GABA naturally.

We are all on the same journey and share the same struggles in life. We are a product of our thoughts, experiences, environment and genetics. When we mindfully choose the nutrition, the movement, the people and the environment that serves us, we up-regulate the pathways and genes that promote health and wellness. Through this blog, it is my desire to instill hope and promise that health is an achievable goal and knowledge is the path to wellness.

The light in me, bows to the light in you~ Namaste
Dr. Patel was named one of the TOP DOCS in Phoenix Magazine 2009, 2016, Healthcare Provider of the Year 2017 by the Fountain Hills Chamber of Commerce and Internist of the Year 2011 by the American College of Physicians Arizona Chapter. She is uniquely trained, board-certified and practices both Pediatrics and Internal Medicine in Fountain Hills, Arizona. She is additionally fellowship trained and board certified in Integrative Medicine.
She has a passion for teaching medicine and acts as a preceptor for both medical residents and providers in training. Dr. Patel has a special interest in Integrative Medicine, Women’s health, Pediatric & Adolescent care, Nutrition and Medical Cosmetics.

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