2.3 Our Brain on Autopilot

Our Brain on Autopilot

Brian (Purple) regulates the hypothalamic-pituitary functions and limbic processes that connect our brain (the peanut) to our body via neurobiological stimulation and chemical processes. Brian tries to maintain physiological balance (homeostasis) around set points, however he can be readily hijacked by Betty’s impulsive and emotional inputs, especially when she has help from the Hippo!

  • Brian – Purple
  • Betty – Red
  • Hippo – Blue

Betty (Red), the amygdala, is the emotional part of our brain. From birth (and in-utero), she’s fully alert, recording everything we feel. She assumes control of our emotional responses to stimuli, whether it is negative, positive, or somewhere in between. Anytime we have an experience, she can and will access and harness the emotional memories of every similar experience and respond accordingly.

Because of her access, observation, and recording of all our emotional history, Betty often becomes our inner voice and can be both bitchy and critical. 

For simplicity, the Hippo (Blue) is our memory function where various inputs (experiences & stimulus) from Betty, Brian, and US (not pictured) are sorted, processed, and sent to storage for later recall.

The Hippo Storing Negative Memories – author’s doodle

While we’ll discuss the brain extensively in other chapters, here’s a way to understand one of the “autopilot” relationships between Brian, Betty, and the Hippo. Think about the last time you were frightened. When we automatically react physically to something alarming, it’s because there is a strong, negative emotional memory association. When Betty senses or perceives danger, she instantaneously sends Brian a distress signal that something’s wrong.

Brian responds immediately by sending neurological impulses to the adrenal glands that empower action to defensively avoid the threat, and our limbs move in self-preservation*. These actions all happen well before WE‘re consciously aware of the threat and take decisive and evasive action to further protect ourselves. If the threat continues, the HPA (Brian) sends signals to the adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline (epinephrine) and release cortisol to keep us energized.

Under normal circumstances, when the danger diminishes, cortisol (stress hormone) levels fall, the physical and emotional responses dissipate, we catch our breath, and we press on. Essentially these are all functions of the sympathetic nervous system. For these responses to diminish, the calming parasympathetic nervous system (which balances out the initial reaction) needs to be activated.

If WE add additional thoughts, continue to dwell on the event or situation, and build resentments (expletives), we’re now inviting Betty to add her emotional input (past memories and judgment). Betty will happily take control, and we react to her negative inputs. When we allow Betty to run the show (and escalate emotions), she continues to make demands of Brian.  The stressful event may be over, but Betty’s still yelling at him to work harder and do more for no reason. In response, he will continue to activate the adrenal glands and production of cortisol. In this state of mixed emotional signaling and energy depletion, we’re likely to do things that aren’t in our best interest (like reach for candy, chips, or a drink we don’t need).

When WE don’t re-assert control and tell ourselves, “we’re safe – it’s okay,” Betty forces Brian to work past quitting time. In this state, we’re burning through reserves and resources quickly.  When our glucose and other (neurotransmitter and hormone) levels plummet in response to stressors, Brian activates our carbohydrate craving machine. Remember, Brian controls our body 24/7, so with no hesitation, WE will seek or reach for carbs and fat to restore set point levels. In this dysregulated state, we tend to binge, consuming excessive calories.

How Betty & Brian respond to food (stimulus)

When we see food, two things happen at the same time. If it’s something we like (chocolate), Betty attaches a flood of positive emotional memories to what we see. Brian may be overjoyed with this anticipatory dopamine rush to the D2 receptors, and without any corrective input from US, Brian will energize our arms and legs to get the chocolate. This excitement and contentment are, alas…temporary. When the effect of sugar consumption diminishes, brain activity levels drop. Brian enters a state of withdrawal (glass is empty), and quickly he starts our cravings for something to help him feel that good (or even normal) again. Betty and the Hippo will continue to team up and encourage us to eat more chocolate (after all, we deserve it).

Emotional eating

Usually, WE eat too much and overload Brian’s capacity to handle the excess glucose or stimulant. Overwhelmed, Brian will downwardly displace the stress (arrow) of trying to adjust to our eating behavior. He activates our sympathetic neurological, vascular, and digestive systems to deal with the excess. We may break out in a sweat, feel an increase in heart rate, feel uncomfortably bloated, and even be nauseous to the point of throwing up. There may be some relief, but it doesn’t last long.

Betty has multiple functions and, at times, a bitchy attitude! Not only does she record our pleasurable experience of eating candy, but at the same time, she’s secretly entering the grams of junk vs. health into her ledger of “good vs. bad.” If we’re feeling bloated the next day, thinking maybe we shouldn’t have eaten so much chocolate, “bitching” Betty, our inner critic, will be right there to add emotional condemnation, criticism, and yep – we’ll feel even more depressed! These feelings of depression are, of course, sent to Brian.

Like most of us, Brian doesn’t like feeling criticized or dumped on by Betty. When we feel sad, neurotransmitter activity decreases. Brian will then grasp at any opportunity to feel better again. Unfortunately, in this cycle (binge-withdrawal-binge) our reward system (and the relationship between Brian and Betty) becomes dysregulated and dysfunctional. This state of dysfunction leaves us vulnerable to weight gain and the onset of a metabolic disorder (MD) [20]. Compared with others, those who struggle with being overweight have higher activation of the reward system. This means high-fat, high-sugar (HFS) foods appeal more to us [20]. It makes sense then that as long as we’re operating on autopilot, it’s hard to cut back carb consumption [19]. Feeling we lack control often prompts abnormal eating behaviors characterized by recurrent cycles of restrictive dieting (grapefruit diet) and overeating.

If we eat excessively for a few weeks, Brian can cope. However, if we continue to consume a diet high in carbs and lipids (fat), we trigger inflammation of the hypothalamus, which is the precursor for the onset of obesity.  Once the inflammation of the peanut takes hold, Brian’s stabilizing functions and feedback mechanisms are significantly impaired. and feedback regulating mechanisms begin to fail. One example of a failure that can occur is significantly diminished/impaired communication (feedback) from the vagus nerve (digestive system and more) that sends signals of “fullness” when eating. When this feedback mechanism fails, we don’t recognize that we’ve had “enough” and it’s time to stop eating.

This same inflammation and oxidation also occur in the Hippocampus, one of the few parts of the brain that can generate new neurons that actually improve mood. To reverse this inflammation and restore functioning, we have to focus on what we’re putting into our bodies and specifically reduce our intake of sugar and lipids.

WE CAN TAKE CHARGE of what happens in our brain, and we can improve our brain health and body composition. Through awareness and being present with ourselves, WE (green frontal cortex) learn to bypass (or eliminate) Betty to re-regulate Brian.  With awareness and healthy choices, we develop new (life-sustaining) response/reward pathways that positively connect US with the HIPPO and Brian to restore our health and wellness.

Rational Eating

With this humorous understanding, we’ll explore the mood states contributing to emotional and dysregulated eating behaviors.

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