How to Prime your Brain for Weight Loss this Spring
Have you heard of the prefrontal cortex or the amygdala? The first time I heard about these parts of the brain, I was mesmerized. Their importance in relation to weight loss struck me since both are largely responsible for my behaviours, my emotions and even my stress response.
Their activity (or under-activity) helped to explain why I kept failing at weight loss when I was in my twenties. A lot of the decisions I was making – in terms of sleep and stress – were actually negatively impacting on these areas of my brain. This would, in turn, hamper my ability to make good food and exercise choices.
Getting our brains primed for weight loss is crucial to success.
After all, our brains operate as the central hub for all of our choices and habits that underpin whether we are at a healthy weight or not.
So What Exactly is the PFC?
The prefrontal cortex (or PFC) is the cerebral cortex covering the front part of the frontal lobe of our brains. This brain region is responsible for planning, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour.
The basic activity of the PFC is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals (in other words, it is really the rational part of our brains). The PFC is able to take into account the long-term consequences of our decisions, rather than doing things on impulse. When we are having those conflicting thoughts about whether we should or should not eat something, it is our PFC that is at play.
The PFC is responsible for willpower and control, meaning it allows us to suppress ‘urges’ to eat food that is unhealthy.
And What is the Amygdala?
The amygdala is part of the limbic system, located deep in the brain, at the end of the hippocampus. It’s function is the response and memory of emotions, especially fear. In this way, it is our emotional control centre.
It is central in controlling our fear response and how much stress we experience in our daily lives.
Fun Fact: studies have been performed where researches inserted a thin wire into the brains of rats to remove their amygdalas. After this procedure, the rats seemed to have no fear of anything, even cats. The removal of the amygdala had even taken away the rats’ memory of fear, therefore they seemed to experience no fear at all (which would be nice, but perhaps a little dangerous!).
So How Can I Prime these Brain Parts to Succeed at Weight Loss?
It’s clear how important the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are in terms of weight loss. But now we need to know how to influence them or shape them so that they start playing in our favour.
5 Ways To Help You Prime Your Brain For Weight Loss This Spring
1. Deal with Stress: People subjected to repeated stressors show reduced volume and interconnections of the frontal lobes with other brain regions. In this way, stress literally changes our brains. Although it’s usually difficult to quickly change the circumstances of our lives (eg. a job we hate, relationship problems or financial stress), we can learn to change the impact they have on us (and our brains).
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can provide a new perspective on our situation which enables us to regain control, reduce the intense physiological and emotional symptoms and adopt effective strategies that will help us to deal with stressful situations with more confidence and ease. To find an accredited therapist near you, click here.
2. Seek Help for Your Depression: If you are depressed, it’s crucial to deal with it as soon as possible. This may mean seeing a therapist or, in some cases, taking medication. Although you may not feel like it, research has also shown that daily exercise (particularly outdoors) can be just as effective as antidepressants in helping, so it’s worth trying for a few weeks to see for yourself if it has an impact.
Interestingly, research has shown that individuals suffering from depression tend to have underactive PFCs, and also less volume in this area, meaning it is actually more difficult for the depressed individual to engage in positive goal-oriented thoughts and behaviours. This makes it extremely difficult for depressed individuals to follow a weight loss programme successfully.
At Motivation, if we detect depression on a client’s monthly Mental Weight Questionnaire, we will raise the subject with them and suggest they see a qualified psychotherapist. For more information, consult the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
3. Sleep better: We all know how irritable and grumpy we can get with sleep deprivation, but did you also know that it disrupts certain connections in your brain that are essential in helping to prevent emotional eating?
Researchers have found that sleep deprivation disrupts the connection between the amygdala and the PFC. Sleep deprivation appears to cause the amygdala to overreact to negative stimuli because it becomes disconnected from brain areas, such as the PFC, that normally moderate its response. This means that we are emotionally less ‘stable’ if sleep deprived and more likely to respond negatively to situations; this can often lead to bingeing or eating due to emotional reasons.
Yet another reason to ban any screens close to bedtime. Read Michael’s great blog on sleep here.
4. Start Meditation: If stress and poor sleep are detrimental to our PFC, then meditation has to be the best antidote for both. Practicing mindfulness can enhance PFC activation, which is linked closely with increased wellbeing and reduced anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation has been defined by Jon-Kabat Zinn (‘the father of mindfulness’) as “the ability to pay total attention to the present moment, with a non judgemental awareness of the inner and/or outer experiences.” Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala (meaning less stress, anxiety and depression), and some studies have showed that after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation the amygdala actually shrinks in size (and the participants also report feeling less stressed).
Several studies have also shown that regular meditation can improve PFC functioning, leading to greater emotional stability and less reactivity (which could mean better willpower and the ability to consistently choose healthier foods). Read more about how meditation can help you lose weight here.
5. Exercise More Frequently: We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but did you know that it primes your brain so that you’re more likely to stick to your healthy eating plan? The left and right halves of the PFC appear to become more interconnected in response to consistent aerobic exercise.
Research done by Basso et al. (2015) also found that a single bout of high intensity exercise (50 minutes on a stationary bike) improved higher order cognitive processes in the PFC such as strategizing and planning. But these positive effects can alo be applied with just simply walking for 30 minutes each day.
So it’s not just about exercising to burn calories (in fact, let’s just agree to sideline that for now), moving regularly will actually also train your brain to stick with the Motivation programme you’re following – now that’s got to be worth a whole lot! If you still need more convincing, read on.