Did you Get the Message?
By Andrew Ellsworth, M.D.
We all know the feeling. You ate too much, and now your stomach is letting you know about it. Or maybe you ate some junk food, and now you don’t feel well. How is it that another slice of pizza one moment seems like exactly what we want, but later we realize it was not what we needed?
In the simplest of terms, it comes down to hunger and cravings. The message for hunger is initiated by the body. When our stomach is empty, and our blood sugar and insulin levels begin to drop, our bodies release the hormone ghrelin and send it to the hypothalamus in our brains resulting in a desire to eat. Cravings, however, are entirely controlled by our brain. Fatty and sugary foods help release feel-good opioids and dopamine in our brains. The message in this case is a misapplied sense of reward.
Our bodies, especially the gastrointestinal system, respond directly to what we put into them. Many common problems like abdominal pain, heartburn or reflux, constipation, and diarrhea are often directly caused by our diet. Other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and Celiac disease can also be treated by a change in diet. Cutting down on processed meats and processed carbohydrates may help decrease your risk of colon cancer.
Thus, when it comes to filling our hungry stomachs with healthy options, there are ways to overpower the feel-good cravings from our brains. First, turn off the TV. Plenty of studies have shown we eat more than we ought to with the TV on. That goes for your phone, too. Second, slow down. Savor your food. Give your body time to send the signals from your digestive tract to your brain that you’ve had enough. Third, drink water while you eat. Room temperature water is best for digestion. Also, we often misinterpret being thirsty for being hungry. Having a glass of water before you eat can help satisfy your thirst and help you eat less. Fourth, eat with someone in person, via Zoom or phone call. When you eat with someone you are more likely to make healthier choices and eat slower.
Our bodies know what is good for us. We just need to understand the messages. Next time you have a craving, or think you feel hungry, rather than automatically eating more, take time to assess your situation. If you discover you are tired, stressed, sad, angry, or lonely, appreciate your new self-awareness and explore behaviors other than eating that could better satisfy your needs. If what you are feeling truly is hunger, give your body what it really wants: a healthy diet.
Andrew Ellsworth, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc® library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc® on Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc® a medical Q&A show streaming on Facebook and broadcast on SDPB most Thursdays at 7 p.m. central.