Healthy, Fit & Fabulous: Your Belly Brain is Listening
You have an amazing number of choices about what you eat. That’s a fantastic thing. All foods aren’t created equal, though. All foods are good; it’s going over the amount-threshold that’s not good. What’s a food-threshold? It’s the amount of food that will cause harm, and some foods have a low threshold. These foods are the sugary and starchy carbohydrates that cause a rapid blood sugar surge and cortisol release, and the saturated fats that cause inflamed blood vessles. At a certain low level no food is dangerous, even the toxic puffer fish, but above that level, that puffer fish can kill you. Eat amounts of these foods over the threshold, and they will cause fat bellies and inflamed arteries.
So the next time you’re making choices about what to eat – at the market, while preparing an evening meal, or at your favorite restaurants – enlist your belly brain. It’s a powerful tool to help you make the right food choices in the right amounts.
What’s the belly brain? You’ve probably mentioned it yourself without realizing it. Consider such established adages in Western culture as having a good or bad “gut feeling” about something or someone. In many Eastern cultures, people will tap their stomachs when they’re asked where they think. The belly brain, in scientific parlance, is the enteric nervous system, which is a separate but interconnected nervous system that exists along your entire intestinal tract. There are as many neurons in your enteric nervous system as in your spinal cord, which gives the system the ability to receive and convey a ton of information.
Sometimes it influences us without our realizing it.
Let’s listen to our belly brain for a minute.
Think about eating fermented fish heads. How does your stomach react? Now think about a banana. How does your stomach react?
That’s your belly brain talking to you. It may not speak English or in full sentences, but it’s definitely giving you an opinion. That’s a distressed “oh, no” for that first choice and a calming “yes” for the banana.
Why does the belly brain convey so much information? Why is it so powerful? The gut has to assess everything we take into our bodies and figure out what to do with it. What part of what we’ve eaten is vitamins? What part is fuel? How much insulin does the pancreas need to make? Should the food be used immediately or stored for later use? Is something we’ve taken in beneficial or a threat?
So, how can you use your belly brain to lose weight?
First, learn about the food-quantity thresholds. We’re not all eating puffer fish every day. Most of us, though, have carbohydrates readily available, and carbohydrates have the biggest potential for going way over the threshold causing the blood sugar surge, insulin and cortisol release causing inflamed arteries and filling abdominal fat cells. These foods are the sugary foods and drinks, and starchy processed foods. It’s so easy to go over the quantity-threshold with these foods – try eating one french fry, one potato chip or one sip of a smoothie – that one successful strategy is to avoid them most days. Fortunately, there are many healthy foods – like spinach, vegetables, colorful fruits, legumes, fiber, and omega-3 foods – that have such high thresholds you can eat much more of them and be safe. So if you’re in a restaurant and asked if you want to have potatoes with gravy, white rice, or spinach, pick the spinach. It’s a high-threshold carb, and it has extra anti-inflammatory properties.
Second, keep your belly brain calm. There’s a huge connection between stress and digestion. When we’re relaxed, our calming, parasympathetic nervous system dominates, digestion is working at its efficient peak, and we make the right amount of the hormones such as insulin to digest what we eat. But when we’re stressed, our hyped-up sympathetic nervous system takes over, triggering the hormone cortisol. Cortisol shuts down our digestion, and converts our bodies’ energy toward the heart and muscles. In the meantime, though, fat is being stored, especially around the middle – call it the “cortisol stomach”. Constant high stress causes the insulin and cortisol hormones to store fat and add weight. Worse yet, both high cortisol and the stored high blood sugar in the form of triglycerides cause inflammation of the blood vessels, especially the arteries leading to the heart and brain. But you can short circuit this cycle of stressful eating with a quick calming technique. Before eating , take a few belly breaths – put you hand on your stomach, breathe in with your stomach and move your hand upward and blow out, moving your hand downward. It triggers a calming reflex. Try three to five of these for an immediate calming effect, for any situation, not just before eating.
Third, use the power of your mind to listen to your belly brain. Will power is too weak for long-term weight loss. You need to train your mind to make the right choices of food and to eat the right amount of foods. Your belly brain knows the answer to both of these questions. Listen and find out. As you make food choices at a restaurant or the market, use your mind to look at the choices and feel the response – green vegetables will give you a go ahead signal for both the right choice and the right amount, white starchy foods may give you a go ahead but only small amounts, and you may find a “no” to the sugary foods and french fries.
Fourth, the belly brain also knows the most efficient digestion time for you – it’s best to eat the right foods in the right amount during breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and nothing after 7:00 pm, or you pick a time three hours before sleeping.
Fifth, your belly brain knows about eating to your highest energy level. Food is fuel that provides you energy. It can provide high, level-ten energy for an invigorating, exciting day or low, level-three energy for a lackluster, dull day. How? Eat to your high-energy level and stop. The ancient gurus knew about this concept when they realized as they were eating a meal, that while food provided energy, there comes a time when the energy level fades into a feeling of overstuffed discomfort and sluggishness. This feeling lasts a long time. But you can use your belly brain and your mind to learn the subtle feeling of high energy while eating and then stop. There are other ways, someone developed a feeling of increased blood sugar level to tell her when to stop eating, and another person began sneezing if she overreached her high-energy level. It really works. The right amount of the right food will provide the huge amount of energy you need to have a successful and enjoyable day.
One final word for everyone. You can break the rules. Three things: Don’t do it often. Eat a small amount. But, most important, enjoy and savor every single bite. If you feel guilty, if you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t do this” and take a bite, “I can’t do this”, and take a bite, “This’ll make me fat”, and take a bite — you have created a stress level so high that will enlarge that cortisol belly and cause inflamed blood vessels. If you break the rules, enjoy each bite.
Eat the right food in the right amount, and over time you’ll be at your healthy weight. You’ll also enjoy the added benefit of eliminating the risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer. Enlist your belly brain and make what you eat work for you now, next year, and years into the future. Your belly brain is listening.
About the Author:
Dr. Gary Epler has written the critically acclaimed personalized health book, “You’re the Boss: Manage Your Disease.” Dr. Epler is a clinical associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and is world-renowned for describing the lung disorder bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia (BOOP), which spurred international research and study. He discovered a parasite in South America, chronicled the nutritional needs of North African children, and managed the tuberculosis refugee program in Southeast Asia.