Ham chips are life, the rest is just details. At least, that’s what part of my brain believes, sensitized to the glamour and ecstasy of a fancy, crisp chip dusted with Iberico ham flavor. I’m usually tempted by these crunchy bites on Wednesdays when I pass the only store I know of around here that sells them, Cooper’s Corner. I work in town, make some drop offs, and then usually have to return home to do some writing for school and/or one of my missives to you all. It’s typically a long day and I’m often low-level anxious about everything working smoothly.
As an emotional eater, I spent much of my childhood/early adulthood leaning on food to help me cope with any minor stressor or celebrate any success. Though mostly in recovery from food addiction, sometimes I experience intense cravings for food that I just give in to. Lately, the ham chips have been beckoning but there’s a long list of other contenders that “come hither” me in food shops: blue cheese, popcorn, frosted cookies, sheet cake, Entenmann's donuts, or any attempt at tiramisu.
Having a sensitive body, in my early twenties as soon I began to really binge on these foods, I began to suffer immediately, getting infections that wouldn’t go away, digestive troubles, and dealing with extra anxiety and depression. I’m kind of lucky because I received signals that helped condition me away from behaviors that would ultimately lead to more serious chronic illness. Diabetes runs in my family. I guarantee with this sweet tooth, I’d be on that highway if it weren’t for the intense feedback I’ve already received from my organs. That said, food cravings are just one of the ways this toxic culture can hijack our autonomy. Though my desires for sheet cake have quieted, they are still there, every time I see a piece in real life. I have to actively resist these urges to stay well. I like to think I am gifted with sensitive taste buds. It makes food a powerful experience and yet, the talons can get too deep.
I’m not the only one. I listen to a podcast about secrets. People just call in and offer their skeletons, sometimes anonymously, sometimes on a first name basis. I listened to one recently when a woman called in and shared, “I just ate a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and I am a phD student in nutrition, studying the obesity epidemic.” The cards are stacked against us, even when we have the information.
It’s not just the rampant availability of hyperpalatable foods that makes resistance to junk challenging (and in other cases lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables), but the pressure cooker that is modern living. The abundance of stress in most of our lives actually rewires our brains away from deliberate and intentional action towards reactive and impulsive choices.
Neuroscience tells us we’ve got sections of our brain that operate different aspects of our behavior. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), in the foremost part of the brain, handles the “executive functions” including long-term decision making, prosocial behavior, planning, self-control, time management, and organization. The amygdala, governs the brain’s reward circuitry, emotional memory, fear conditioning, and impulsivity. Though the amygdala does good work, it’s understood as a less “mature” or “primitive” part of our brain that, when left in charge, may underlie addictive and impulsive tendencies.
A new book Brain Wash, written by the father and son M.D. pair Austin and David Perlmutter, examines the way chronic stress, and particularly social media, atrophies the PFC and fortifies connections in the amygdala, offering physiological insight into not just why junk food can get a hold on us but, why there’s a growing divisive culture and lack of empathy in the U.S. They present a thesis that disconnection syndrome, the “us v. them” reality we find ourselves in, has a basis in the brain, where actual disjunctions occur at the level of neurons (brain cells).
In a radio interview with Dr. Mark Hyman, the Perlmutters share that animal studies show neurons in the PFC actually contract and weaken when under chronic stress, causing this “adult in the room” to shrink. The amygdala on the other hand, experiences growth, fostering a switch towards self-centered decision making. In essence, they warn that stress reconfigures our brains, leaning towards choices that don’t take our future or others' future into account.
Skimping on sleep also accelerates this switch. David Perlmetttuer reports a study that just one night of lean sleep resulted in a 60% more active amygdala. The chronically sleep deprived eat on average 380 more kcals a day. Even looking at negative images (see: t.v.) spiked amygdala activity by 60%.
When our amygdala is activated, and operating without PFC supervision, we tend to choose immediate satisfaction, choose the “ham chips.” These choices have ties to depression and other brain turmoil---e.g. dementia ---driven by inflammation. Evidence increasingly links systemic body inflammation, achievable from chronic consumption of oxidized fats (ham chips!) or from gut punch doses of sugar (sheet cake!) or just plain old chronic stress, to degenerative brain conditions such as Alzhiemer’s. As one of the Perlmutter’s plainly puts it, “You feel like crap and your decisions are impulsive. You eat crap because you just choose something quickly. You don’t think about your future.”
Our culture likes to focus on vanity as the premiere reason to eat well. Diet culture worships the thin aesthetic and six pack. Yet from the work of the Perlmutters and so many others, eating well is necessary to keep our brains healthy and maintain our humanity. I need to avoid chips (for the most part) so I keep seeing my own future and caring about the future of others---if not to ward off chronic disease. Of course we all choose our poison, and I will never stop eating fried potatoes, it’s in my blood. Yet, I can have respect for what they can do to my brain, at least the highly convenient renditions, and when I catch myself slipping into ham chip despair, I can look for the exit, creating stoke and momentum elsewhere.
As David Perlmutter shares, oxytocin is one of the ways out of this vicious cycle, this feel good hormone connects the PFC and amygdala. Exercise, mediation, a 20 minute walk outside---these free, simple tasks are all reported to help reroute the brain back to its mature, empathetic place. The more worn a path, the easier it is to travel.
We’re almost through the darkest days of the year, Imbolc is nigh, the “quickening” of the year when light begins to noticeably grow again here in the temperate northeast. It will start to get a little easier to rekindle an embodied life, if that’s something you’ve lost touch with during these trying times. I’m already feeling a little more hopeful after yesterday. Hooray!
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.