Written by: Lauryn Lax
First it started with just one cookie—actually just a couple bites of a cookie. Then, all you could think about was the whole cookie. So you had the whole cookie, and one whole cookie turned into six whole cookies.
Fresh popped, buttery popcorn sounded like the perfect evening snack. Ten-minutes later, you finished the whole bag.
This whole paleo thing makes you feel really great…However, sometimes a couple spoons of almond butter turns into a whole jar, a handful of plantain chips turns into the whole bag, or a couple paleo muffins turns into four or five.
You don’t want to “over-eat.”
You don’t want to “binge,” but time and time again that Achilles’ heel gets you.
And no matter how much you vow: “Tomorrow is a brand new day. I won’t do it”…
Binge eating is the most common eating disorder in the U.S., affecting approximately two million Americans, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. Men account for about 40% of binge eaters. In addition, more than half of BED patients have anxiety disorders and/or mood disorders—(indicating some have a trigger to overeat that is greater than will-power alone).
Traditional literature and research have tried to explain why binging happens, and why it’s so difficult to stop.
There’s a lot of talk about the mind-body connection—with a heavy emphasis more on the mindset than the body—a complete picture.
Even if body physiology is addressed in the literature, research has typically blamed binge eating primarily on ghrelin and leptin levels—hormones that regulate appetite—chalking the whole struggle to primarily be a matter of channeling your mindset.
One of the most commonly cited “reasons” or explanations you can’t stop binging (or why you binge in the first place)?
“Emotional eating” is real.
Defined as “an increase in food intake in response to emotions”(often negative, but sometimes positive), emotional eating is said to occur when we long for something deeper to fill a void we have, or quiet the overwhelming emotion(s) in our head and heart.
Like a crying baby. Give her a bottle, and she calms down.
Sad? Excited? Anxious? Lonely? As an emotional eater, all a “hungry” heart needs (momentarily) may seem like the batch of paleo brownies, a box of Capn’ Crunch or that jar of creamy almond butter to meet its needs.
“Stress” is also another common reason why some are wired to eat (more)—or have binge episodes—in spite of not wanting to.
Researchers out of Yale University state that “uncontrollable stress” changes eating patterns, leading to the consumption of more “hyperpalatable foods.”
In their extensive literature review of 120 different studies on binge-eating and stress, they resolved their conclusions from findings, such as:
- In animals, palatable non-nutritious food (i.e. sugar, additives) suppresses HPA axis activity, impacting cortisol levels (and making you want more of these foods to feed cortisol); and humans similarly turn to hyperpalatable comfort foods such as fast food, snacks, and calorie-dense foods to cope with stress
- Stress makes some people want more food, as food increases satiety (pleasure) and decreases heart rate, anger, and confusion
- Lack of sleep (stress) impacts our own control of our appetite (makes us want to eat more)
WE GET IT
Mindset is a powerful force in our own mental health and well-being.
For instance, “the power of positive thinking” is no new concept. You can probably name at least one or two influential books, videos, or podcasts that have helped you build into your own champion mindset
Research on the “placebo effect” often finds that the placebo effect yields the same results as those who undergo treatment, like Dr. J. Bruce Mosely’s knee-surgery study. Half of knee-surgery patients actually received the surgery—the others did not. Neither group knew if they had the surgery (they were asleep), but both equally recovered in the same amount of time (because of the power of their mind).
And you probably recognize how your mindset and emotions impact your own food choices. Happy emotions for your straight-A’s on your report card as a kid meant “ice cream,” or negative emotions around a breaking up with your boyfriend meant eating a whole box of chocolates (until you felt sick).
The mind IS powerful.
However, little research or resources has addressed why you can’t stop a powerful mind when it comes to binging.
You don’t want to binge. But time and time again, you can’t help it.
Treatment or traditional methods for empowering your mind and kicking your binge habits include things like:
Stress management skills
Powerful life coaching sessions
Strict Meal Plans
In addition, society’s “answers” for helping “over-eaters” or binge eaters include:
Carefully measuring and tracking macros and calories
Working out harder (and doing more cardio)
And “just doing it”—willpower, people, willpower
While these methods seem to help and give some answers for things like portion control, self-control, and stress management…
Why can’t you stop binging?!?!
Enter: The brain-gut connection.
THE MISSING LINK: THE BRAIN GUT CONNECTION
The brain-gut connection is no novel idea.
Over the past decade, handfuls of books, lectures and research has emerged, often educating on topics such as: ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression, OCD, Autism dyslexia and schizophrenia.
The brain is directly connected to the gut, and the gut to the brain.
In fact, your vagus nerve—the nerve that governs your entire process of digestion—is attached directly from the top of your stomach to your medulla oblongata: the part of your brain responsible for your body’s autonomic (involuntary) functions (like blinking, sneezing and digestion).
Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a “walkie talkie”—the gut talks to it to tell your brain how you feel (“those gut feelings” or “butterflies in your stomach”). Conversely, your brain talks to your gut to also tell it how you feel (a la public speaking fears anyone?).
Hence: When your gut health is unhealthy…Your brain is unhealthy.
Bacterial overgrowth, leaky gut, celiac disease, inflammation, parasites, low stomach acid, dysbiosis,, IBS/IBD, bloating and intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) are just some of the imbalances an “unhealthy” gut may explain, making the whole “strong mindset” piece extremely difficult to overcome disordered eating and binge eating episodes.
Couple this with the euphoric chemical brain response, similar to drugs, that our brain gets from sugary foods, and the brain-damaging effects of foods with additives, and it’s no wonder so many stay stuck in the struggle.
You can listen to all the motivational self-help books, talk about your stressors, meditate with the amazing Headspace app, but if there is still a disconnect in your gut to start…the brain (and the emotions or stressors you say explain your binge eating tendencies) struggles to heal.
SO NOW WHAT?
“Ok, I get it. That gut-brain connection thing is real. But what do I do now?”
Research is just now beginning to emerge around the role of gut bacteria and “healing the gut” for healing eating disorders—including binge eating.
One team of researchers concluded that a “gut healing” approach—inclusive to prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics, fecal transplant, and diet changes are beneficial for altering the gut micro biome and decreasing binge eating symptoms.
Another team out of the University of North Carolina is currently recruiting participants to understand more about the gut micro biome’s influence on an unhealthy relationship with food.
In the mean time, here are some simple play-by-play steps you can take today:
- Raise Awareness. Knowledge is power. Simple understanding that there is more to overcoming binge eating than willpower or positive thinking alone can be tremendously liberating to address the issue from all aspects—body, mind and soul. The key question: What am I really hungry for? does not change, and a good deep soul-search of what is really behind the hunger is essential. However, don’t neglect the next step for a “bottom up” approach—addressing the roots and brain imbalances beyond your thoughts and emotions as well.
- Assess, Don’t Guess. Gut and micro-biome testing help take the guess work (and Google searching) out of the questions: “Do I have leaky gut?” “Do I have SIBO?” “Is it a parasite?” “Am I intolerant to ____?” Connect with a knowledgeable functional medicine or nutrition practitioner who can help you navigate your overall health and set you up for success. There are multiple tests to run—depending on your symptoms—but in practice, I find starting with a comprehensive blood panel (including comprehensive thyroid testing), SIBO test and comprehensive stool (parasitology) test is a good place to begin for those who come to me with histories of binge eating or disordered eating. However, others tests may be helpful for deductive reasoning as well. Aside from lab testing, a comprehensive lifestyle, nutrition and mindset intake can also shed great insight for the client treatment plan—more than a 5-minute visit with your general practitioner may give you—and several simple, but effective conclusions and protocols may come from this intake paperwork as well. (Note: No two doctors or practitioners are alike. Do your research and connect with someone who doesn’t prescribe the same status quo or supplement run-down to all their patients. And if you don’t have any in your area, you’re in luck. Tele functional-medicine is spanning state boarders, and functional medicine practitioners trained by leading experts like Chris Kresser and the Institute for Functional Medicine are more and more common).
- Connect to Your Food. Connection to our food is HUGE. How many times do you eat in front of your computer or TV? Eat in the car on the go? Scarf your lunch down in between meetings? Eat straight from the jar or the tray? Hello, mindless-ness (and a complete disconnect from our body and mind). In addition, are you slowing down during meals and chewing your food? Optimal digestion (and peace of mind) happens in a parasympathetic state (think “rest and digest”). Here’s an experiment to try: The next time you’re out to eat, observe others’ eating—and chewing— The vast majority of people do this: “Chew. Chew. Swallow. Chew. Chew. Swallow.” By inhaling our food, not breathing, slowing down or chewing our food (well) in our mouth, we set our digestive process and total eating experience (i.e. peace with food) up for distress.
- Try This At Home. Supporting your gut with a basic gut healing approach to start: Chew your food and take five to ten deep breaths before meals, drink half your bodyweight in ounces of water throughout the day, eat real food, take a quality probiotic, and you can even try a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a shot glass of water before meals. In addition, consider incorporating other strategies, such as putting your fork down between meals; Not keeping trigger foods in the house; And retraining the palate (see Robb’s book, “Wired to Eat” for more on this).
- Don’t Try This At Home. Self-diagnosis. Random Whole Foods pharmacology treatments. Multi-layered treatments. Doctor hopping. 2 a.m. Google searching for answers. Restrictive and extreme diets (will lead you down a whole ‘nutha rabbit hole). Saving your “cheats” up for cheat meals. Avoiding healthy fats. “Trying to be good.” Putting yourself in situations that you know set you up to fail.
- Don’t Forget. The mind is still a powerful force to be reckoned with. Heal the gut, but continue to heal the mind. And coercively, you have a dynamite combination.
THE BOTTOM LINE: YOU ARE WIRED TO EAT
You are wired to eat.
Eating is not a bad thing.
Human beings need food and fuel to function, and despite the push for low-calorie diets, and hype around fasting, intermittent fasting, and “moving more and eating less,” food (and your desire to eat) is not the enemy.
The “problem” herein lies when we condition our brains—and our bodies—to need food to fill us, not nourish us.
The first line of defense to combatting your binge eating struggles?
It starts in the gut.
By targeting your gut health, in conjunction with targeting an empowered mindset, stress management and the art of intuitive eating, you allow your body (and brain) to truly heal—reaching new heights in not only your relationship with food, but also a healthy sense of control.
Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTR, NTP, CPT is the founder of her brand and practice Thrive Wellness & Recovery. As an Occupational Therapist, Nutritionist, and Functional Medicine Practitioner, Dr. Lauryn is passionate about bringing preventative healthcare to society through lifestyle redesign, real-foods nutrition, functional movement, and mindset coaching. She earned her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, her Nutrition Therapy Practitioner (NTP) Certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and has received additional training from the world’s leading Functional Medicine Practitioners, both the Institute of Functional Medicine’s training courses and Chris Kresser’s ADAPT Framework. In addition, Dr. Lauryn is a Certified Fitness Professional and trainer. She currently lives in Austin, Texas, and works with girls and women all over the world to achieve their life, nutrition, fitness and health goals.