First published in What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You Magazine.
We all have moments where we eat more than usual, but for those who tend to overeating, compulsion around food can be a debilitating condition, leaving feelings of powerlessness and anxiety. What we put in our mouths is one of the few elements of life we can control and when signals of satisfaction and ‘enough’ don’t kick in to create the end of eating, this can leave us with feeling scarily out of control.
The serotonin connection
Whether overeating tendencies or episodes are part of a larger eating disorder or not, they are commonly associated with anxiety and other mental health issues like depression (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2012: 118–31). Low levels of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin are associated with these conditions. Serotonin is also responsible for satiety or satisfaction after eating and low levels signal cravings for foods, particular starches and sweet foods as a survival mechanism to raise serotonin. These foods raise levels of the hormone insulin, needed to carry serotonin into the brain. Serotonin also increases emotional satisfaction and depletion can show in isolating behaviours, leaving people more likely to derive comfort and gratification from food.
Overeating is often a numbing response to emotional and psychological pain (often from past trauma), whether this is conscious or unconscious. As with physical pain, the cortisol-lowering effects of yoga are similar to massage. As the limbs rub against each other and the floor, serotonin levels increase and help regulate our experience of pain, reducing following through the impulse to self-medicate through food.
Stress and the reward impulse
Any activity done to excess can have the numbing effect of a negative coping pattern, like shopping, TV or exercise. These can be a response to an agitated nervous system, where self-soothing is difficult in the face of life’s challenges. Stress from external life circumstances or internally generated as worry or fears depletes serotonin and other neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) needed to calm mind-body. Yoga has shown to reduce anxiety with levels directly linked to regularity of practice (Annals of Medical & Health Sciences Research, 2015: 260–265) and yoga postures have been shown to raise GABA in body and brain (Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 2007: 419–426).
Researchers into neuroscience are beginning to understand how a yoga programme can help reduce food preoccupation (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010: 346–351). A part of the front brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPCF) appears to integrate emotion-related information and translate this into habitual, quick-fix type behaviours. Low VMPFC activity affects decision-making and can result in choices that just satisfy instant want or reward, (like a sugar endorphin rush) with no long-term concern. A recent paper cited, “because yoga encourages mindfulness, positive self-talk, and self-acceptance, which may help increase self-confidence and sense of self, these aspects may engage the VMPFC by encouraging focus on body movements, the breath, and other foci” (Explore, 2012: 118–126).
It is through these (and other) mind-body actions that a regular physical yoga practice, alongside the encompassing spiritual beliefs has shown to increase body satisfaction and improve disordered eating (Eating Disorders, 2009: 273-92).
Yoga practice for appetite regulation
Much of a physical and meditative yoga practice trains us to be able to stay with strong and intense sensations, helping to drop reaction and attachment to these. Fostering the open-mindedness, self-compassion and non-judgment that a mindful practice encompasses, allows us to breathe with the uprise of intensity, allowing release and movement through on the exhalation. This helps us step away from habits of labelling experience as ‘good or bad’, ‘pleasant or unpleasant’ and rather feel in non-critical tones and textures. Exploring this within a yoga practice can help us to bring this attention to thoughts and feelings that may trigger overeating and other temporarily rewarding impulses. We then can have more space and possibility to resist cravings.
It is crucial to maintain this mindful focus and loving-kindness as the ‘union’ that the word yoga means. Those with body dissatisfaction are often attracted to media images of acrobatics performed by dancer-type bodies and a 2011 study identified that those drawn to yoga may be more at risk of eating disorders (International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2011: 276-80). Those students often see yoga as a fitness regime and push themselves to extremes where the possible regulating effects cease to apply.
Positive body image is the foundation to a happy relationship with food. Loving your body doesn’t mean fixing bits you hone in on as ‘wrong’, it is about acceptance for the way you are. There is a danger to yoga being overly dynamic and punitive rather than fostering a compassionate relationship with our bodies. If a yoga class leaves you on a high rather than calm and clear or offers little time for relaxation or breath awareness, move to one where connection and kindness are the guiding factors.
Meditation on movement
This is an example of a kriya (action, effort) used in Kundalini yoga to move energy through the body, detoxify and clarify. The continual movement has a meditative effect that is very effective at engaging mind stories that might be otherwise fixated on cravings and impulses. As the motion is continued for up to three minutes (build up so you don’t add tension to your shoulders), it can move you through the period that a craving has been shown to typically last. Breathe fully into long releasing out-breaths to ensure relaxed face and jaw throughout.
- Sit in easily upright position, on a chair is good for many. Spend a few moments settling into your breath and releasing your shoulders, moving into them if you need.
- Bring your fingertips onto your shoulders and lift your elbows in towards your ears on an inhalation.
- Open your elbows out and extend your arms (just above shoulder height) on the exhalation.
- Feel the motion supported by your belly and side ribs rather than lifting the shoulders.
- Keep this motion following the breath, allowing the exhale right to its end point and stopping to rest if you feel agitation.
Soothing your nervous system
Forward bends are soothing as they protect the vulnerable front body, open the base of the skull and create a sense of surrender rather than reaction as we lower the head into them. In this simple version, we also actively engage the trigeminal nerve in the forehead to relax the whole body and melt away brain chatter.
- Sit cross-legged on a block or folded blanket, settle into your seat and when you feel connected to your body, allow yourself to fold forward.
- Place a yoga block or as many as you need to the height of where your head comes naturally without straining your neck forward. You may need to do this to a chair, sofa or any place where you can rest comfortably in your lower back.
- With shoulders and jaw released, explore rolling your head a little side to side to feel some pressure as you massage across the forehead. Do this for as long as feels right and in whichever way helps you to feel release and opening in the back of the neck.
Hip release to resist food cravings
We hold much emotional tension in our hips, exacerbated by sitting on chairs or exercise patterns that focus mostly on forward and back motions, like running and cycling. Our hips are designed to open outwards, so introducing this movement back can produce many ‘interesting’ sensations! Breathing to experience this intensity, be with it and release into it helps us stay with and not react to the similar intensity of cravings. When we breathe fully and exhale to release swells of intense sensation, we can begin to notice that they are always moving and changing and that we do not need to be overwhelmed or controlled by them.
NB: start with all poses lifting in the right leg first; illustrations show differing legs so that you can see the positions most clearly. Then move to the left side, taking as much time as you need on both.
- Begin lying on the ground with knees bent and soles of the feet on the ground. Breathe here with arms out to the side or hands onto your belly to connect into how you feel at your centre. Support under your skull (yoga block or folded blanket) to ensure your head isn’t tipping back; when moving into the hips you may feel this need more.
- Draw the right knee in towards your chest and lengthen out the left leg along the ground, flexing that foot as if you were standing on something.
- Open the left arm out to the side, inhale the right knee into the chest and exhale out to the side, propping up the right elbow on the ground to only bring out the knee as far as you still feel rooted into the weight of the left thigh. Explore the feelings into the hip as you breathe.
- Draw the right knee back to centre, interlink your fingers around the back of the thigh and begin to straighten the leg. If your hamstrings are tight you may need to bend up the left leg and keep the foot on the floor. Release the shoulders so that tension doesn’t get caught here, opening and releasing the jaw whenever you need to allow more spacious breathing. Stay with the sensations of opening the hamstrings, this helps to self-soothe as they tighten with stress to move us forward.
- Draw the right knee back into the chest and with the left leg along the ground, open out the arms and breath heaviness to root down in the right shoulder. On an exhale draw the right knee over the left to come into a twist and release the lower back after opening the hips.
- Draw both knees in towards the chest and do whatever feels right for your hips and lower back. Then open them a little wider than your ribs, bring your elbows to the insides of your knees and lift up your feet to take hold of either their outer edges or your shins if that is not available to you. Hold deep hip feelings with compassion, dropping the need to label them as ‘like or dislike’, ‘pleasant or unpleasant’.
- Keeping the right arm and leg in situe, lengthen out the left and place your left hand on the top of that thigh to root your body and awareness there. Inhale up the length of your body and exhale fully down, even sighing out to continually create the space to feel without compulsive reactive.
- Draw the outstretched leg back in and come back to the first, neutral position. Breathe here to connect in to the ripples of the practice before moving to the other side.
Meditation on release
Laying down comfortably, begin to observe your breath flow in and out as naturally as possible. Watch your nervous system calm down, relaxing the brain, muscles and whole body. Cultivate this sense of safety and self-protection. The more you consciously do this, the more your body and mind can always find a safe, energizing, calming place as an alternative to the self-soothing mechanism of eating.
- Say the internal mantra ‘Let’ on the inhalation, ‘Go’ on the exhalation to give the instruction ‘Let go’ to your whole body. This is also a useful intervention if you ever feel caught swept up in a tide of craving.
- This simple variation of the Buddhist meditation ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ helps train awareness of the breath and take attention away from anything else. Begin counting ‘1’ on the inhalation, ‘1’ on the exhalation. Continue counting the full breath cycle like this up to 10, then start again. If your mind wanders or you lose count, simply start again at 1.
- Focus on your heart centre (which you may easily visualize as nourishing green energy if happens naturally), breathing in to feel compassion and unconditional loving-kindness (metta or karuna) to yourself. This is important for those who overeat to numb feelings of pain or who feel that their needs aren’t being met. If you give out lots to others, it’s time to nourish yourself in other ways.
Find the right method for you
Finding the balance between eating enough without eating too much can be difficult for everyone. Charlotte offers a free e-book filled with simple and delicious recipes. The 7 Day Plan includes dairy free, gluten free and vegetarian options, with added nutritional information and on-the-go alternatives. Sign up for Charlotte’s newsletter and receive your 7 Day Plan here.
As a Nutritional Therapist, Charlotte also offers one-on-one consultations, offering advice and guidance in the areas you seek the most help; including eating habits, IBS and stress-related issues. Consultations may take place in person, on the phone, or over Skype. More information concerning consultations can be found here.