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When I was about 9 or 10 years old growing up outside New Haven, Connecticut, the highlight of most days was when Charlie’s Traveling Candy Store would come rolling through the low-income housing projects. Each afternoon I would eagerly await Charlie’s white step van and use my paper route money to buy Jujyfruits, Necco Wafers, Milky Ways, glass bottles of Coke and Bubble-Up and Wise Potato Chips. I would then take this treasure trove back to my bedroom and gorge on it unsupervised. Every day was Halloween. And while it turned out to be a quick and dirty way to stimulate my pleasure circuits and regulate the stresses of growing up daily in a very dangerous environment, little did I or anyone else realize the myriad ways in which that early conditioning would ultimately adversely impact my body and brain.
For the last 18 years or so, I’ve struggled with my weight as a conditioned consequence of those early acquired sugar, starch and fatty habits. My normal playing weight up until around age 45 was about 185 pounds. When I stopped actively working as a homebuilder, slowly and silently my weight began creeping up…190…195…200. I promised myself I would never exceed 200 pounds. Imagine the shame and self-loathing when I stepped onto the scale one morning and saw a readout of: 242! And I’m not even someone genetically predisposed to disliking exercise. The good news is: I’m not to blame. I can blame it on my astrocytes! And if my astrocytes are smart, they will cop a plea and point their tendrils at … the micobiome in my gut. That’s where bacteria that outnumber my body’s cells 100-1 are constantly making decisions for me about what they think I ought to eat. All without telling me; keeping me mostly clueless, as this indicting research suggests. It’s partly why being fat has worked so powerfully to keep me fat for so long.
What to do?
The past 18 years have essentially been an exploration of what not to do – any of 10,000 things that haven’t actually helped to reduce and manage my weight gain – from partnering with a nutritionist, to cleansing fasts, to restoration retreats, to mindfulness-based weight reduction programs – none of it has produced lasting change. Only recently the problem had become urgent: it was undeniably adversely impacting my brain functioning. For too many days I would find myself walking around in a brain fog. Not to mention my firsthand knowledge of the relationship between depression, dementia and obesity.
Then, one day several years ago I heard child neuro-psychiatrist Bruce Perry proclaim, “No matter what business you’re in, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business!” Bingo! The lights went on. In order to effectively be in the weight loss and management business, of course I need to be in the brain change business. All those trips to Charlie’s Traveling Candy Store had worked day after day to change my brain then, providing an effective, short-term way to regulate stress. Back then I was changing my brain reactively, unconsciously. Now I would have to do the work of changing my current brain for the better, consciously. I would have to find and begin to implement ways of regulating stress that did not produce adverse, unintended consequences. Several important and surprising keys presented themselves once I began investigating, none of which had I found in mainstream “diet research.”
People who can easily manage weight have brains that are different from you and me. One reason diets don’t work is because unless you deliberately take steps to change the neural circuitry in your brain and body, you’ll end up with the same brain at the end of the diet as when you began. If you believe the statistic Katy Couric provides in the documentary Fed Up, 95% of Americans will be obese or overweight in 20 years. 95%! Why? Because they’re trying (or not) to fix the wrong problem(s). I find little solace in having such a great amount of company in my struggle. And while that movie and many so-called experts believe that effective weight loss and management is a many-headed hydra, I believe much the opposite – one important aspect is developing creative ways to effectively restore and rebuild what former drug addict and neuroscience professor Marc Lewis (Memoirs of and Addicted Brain) calls our “No” circuitry. No circuitry is made up of real neural fibers in the brain that get laid down in childhood when we have healthy parents supervising our development. Such parents have kind, firm and effective ways of verbally and nonverbally telling us “No!” In effect, what those parents are doing is serving as our external orbital prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain most associated with effective planning and no-bullshit impulse control – the part of the brain most easily able to adamantly and compassionately say “No” and mean NO to unhealthy, impulsive urges like a late night run up Highway 525 to DQ (Dairy Queen). This is one part of the brain most vulnerable to the above adverse astrocyte effects (Adverse astrocyte effects are also apparently affecting our pets, as more than 50% of them are obese as well!).
Experimenting with What Works
For the last six months I have been deliberately experimenting with things that are proving to be good and useful for me to do in order to manage my weight, i.e. change my brain. From watching movies like Katy Couric’s, to reading books like Alexander Junger’s Clean, to buying a stress measuring monitor (Spire – a device that measures breath and assesses stress; Steve Porges, of polyvagal theory fame, serves as a consultant; then there’s FitBit; also, a free app I use on my iPhone called 24/7). I also plan to investigate Apple’s Healthkit when it’s available. I’m even experimenting with Soylent, the food substitute. They are all moving me in the direction of becoming a bio-measured human, which isn’t as onerous as it might seem if I make a game out of it (What I didn’t bother with were nationally, celebrity-pitched products like Garcinia Cambogia or the Absolute Coffee Cleanse).
From that high of 242, I have been on a gradual descent, essentially in two-pound increments over the last six months that have me currently at 215. Weight management isn’t about how much I weigh (except for when it is). It’s about changing my brain so that what I used to eat that made me fat, no longer drives my neurophysiology. I have grown new cells and brain connections that prefer the taste of healthy food in moderation. And there’s an unexpected added bonus: my sense of smell has returned along with my sense of physical balance! Since the time and effort I put in doesn’t feel particularly onerous or stressful – more like a curious experiment – I expect this descent to continue until I manage to get back close to my playing weight of 185. That may or may not be an ideal weight for me. My brain and body will decide, and it will be a good decision as both become increasingly healthier. I’ll just continue doing my best to keep experimenting with this course-correcting, brain remodeling trajectory.
Note: This September and October, I’m going to be offering four sessions on How a Neuroscientist Manages Weight. The material is designed and intended to prove unique to you and your brain and body. Check it out HERE. I think many of you are going to LOVE the content.