While on a run last week, I listened to a podcast featuring therapist and coach Dr. Cali Estes, who works with all kinds of addicts — drug, alcohol, food, gambling, you name it. She offered up an important reminder:
People who struggle with addiction or compulsive behavior (i.e. emotional eating) have an imbalance of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine in the brain. They seek to spike these hormones with external substances or stimuli. (Hello sugar, caffeine, chewing gum, and the like!)
We all love to feel good, but if you rely heavily on vices for hits of happiness, your natural serotonin levels can drop drastically, leaving you depleted and in need of outside help more than ever before.
In my experience, this physical reaction left me depleted and chronically confused. Over the years, I learned that certain foods and habits make me feel (and act) like a crazy person. So, I began to avoid them. When I managed to abstain from emotional eating, I could feel the physical cleansing of my body, which was wonderful, but my energy levels plummeted.
Painfully low energy, combined with feelings of indifference, numbness, and even depression at times, led me to believe I was depriving myself, despite my moderate plan of eating and exercise.
“Am I being too strict? Should I change my eating style? Am I eating too much meat? Am I eating too many carbs? Maybe I should become a vegan? Should I be more flexible and just ‘let myself eat what I want’ so that I can be like everyone else? What’s wrong with my eating habits? What’s wrong with me?”
These questions would play over and over again in my mind and often trigger an repetitive cycle of obsession, restriction, and bingeing.
In many ways, I was depriving myself, but not because I cut out overeating. I had removed my “drug of choice,” and I didn’t know how to fill the void that was left behind. I didn’t know how to come back to balance without the food.
According to Dr. Estes, an imbalance of serotonin can have a significant mental, emotional, and physical impact on the mind and body — affecting mood, appetite, memory, and learning function.
On the podcast, she shares that when you first “get sober” (aka stop relying on sugar and other comfort foods to soothe your emotions), your serotonin levels are depleted. Boosting your serotonin with healthier activities — like exercise, meditation, breath work, and so on — is essential to lowering your stress and replenishing your feel-good hormones, which then increase your focus and squash your false appetite.
While I completely agree that replacing a binge or obsessive train of thought with a healthy mood-enhancing activity can be extremely helpful, for me, there’s more to the story.
In my experience, exercise and alternative reactions to cravings weren’t enough. When I ran into anything that felt challenging, overwhelming, upsetting, or even exciting, I couldn’t always rely on exercise to relieve me of my obsession. The same feelings would often resurface after I took that walk outside or drink of water. Sometimes, healthier stress relievers didn’t alleviate my compulsive feelings at all. (Can anyone relate?)
At my lowest point, I struggled to get through the day without relying on some form of high. Exercise became my new form of obsession. Once I hit a wall there, I focused all of my time and energy on the pursuit of the cleanest diet. After that, I moved on to yoga and meditation.
Yes, these activities are healthier than bingeing on sugar, but I was still mentally and emotionally out of whack, and my underlying mindset always led me back to square one. I had to dig deeper. I had to figure out what was truly causing my feel-good hormones to disappear.
As soon as I started to do the deeper work, look within, and shine light on thoughts, emotions, and actions that were actually depleting my energy, I was able to permanently let go of triggers that I didn't even know existed. I was able to literally combat the deep-seated beliefs that were sucking the life out of me.
Once I freed up all of this space, I was able to get crystal clear on what truly feels good and what doesn’t; in relation to how I eat and exercise, but also how I make decisions, how I show up for work, how I treat other people, how I treat myself, and how I perceive myself and the world around me. Talk about a boost of seretonin that transcends a set of squats or a walk in the park!
If you're interested in balancing your feel-good hormones and developing a sustainable healthy and energizing relationship with food and your body, I would love for you to connect with me here for a free consultation.
Sending you love and lots of seretonin!