You have voluntary control of the movements of your toes and fingers, but how much control do you have over the activity of your brain?
When trying to quit binge eating, or any other habit, one thing stands out as a superhighway path to faster success: making friends with your brain.
As acclaimed psychotherapist Marisa Peer says, “The mind is simple. It likes what’s familiar.” if we take this to the more physiological level of the actual brain, we can observe that the brain has pathways, called synapses, that get created when we learn something new, and become more efficient at sending and receiving signals the more we use them.
Imagine yourself learning to ride a bicycle. Remember when balancing on an inch and a half of spinning rubber felt like an impossibility? The only way to get it right was to do it again and again. And then, like magic, you stayed on…. and then you even gained some distance.
The amazing thing here is that you really didn’t have to do anything other than be willing to try, over and over, until your brain built the pathways necessary to master the skill. Your brain did the work.
Word #1: Neuroplasticity
Let’s put aside the word, “Addiction” for a bit. Binge eating, smoking, drinking, any other thing that we do compulsively for pleasure, are all also habits.
They are habits of the mind, pathways in the brain that are well-traveled. We know that if we eat a quantity of food, we will be rewarded with a feeling of relaxation and a blissful food fog that keeps us at a certain comfortable distance from our stress.
Here comes the good part: the brain can build new pathways, new synapses, at any time of life. This is known as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. In addition, a process called synaptic pruning actually shuts down old neural pathways that are no longer in use so that it may use these resources to fuel pathways that are in high demand.
In short, if you decide today that instead of binge eating you are going to learn to play the violin, it would be hard in the beginning as the brain would be constantly tempted to operate that well-worn groove of the binge eating pathway.
However, the longer you stuck to it, the more well-worn your violin playing pathway would become (starting from nothing, remember) and eventually it would be more well-worn than the binge eating pathway.
In fact, if you didn’t binge eat for long enough, your brain would actually prune those synapses, shutting down this pattern altogether!
How Do We Get From Point “A” to Point “Cravings Nonexistent?”
Here’s the question. Here, we use a little practical brain science. #1, we have to believe that change is possible.
We have to believe in neuroplasticity, which isn’t hard, because not only is it scientifically proven far beyond doubt at this point, but all of us know this on an intuitive level, because we have seen transformation in ourselves and/or others in the course of a life.
#2, there are things we can DO to strengthen neuroplasticity, and thereby increase our ability to change habits. But before I get to that, let me explain the second key word of this article.
Word #2: Addictability
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be fine eating just one chocolate out of the box and not attacking the whole thing?
Have you also wondered if in fact these folks are a separate species?
It’s not far off. Addiction research shows there are specific genes that make us more or less susceptible to certain addictions. Specific genes are hard to find on the DNA ladder, so research takes a lot of trial and error. From what researchers can tell,
“First, there is no single addiction gene. Second, the same genes contribute to many different addictions.”(1)
This suggests that there is such thing as being addictable, not just to a particular substance, but to the flood of dopamine in the limbic system (the part of the brain that governs basic emotions and drives like sex, dominance, care and offspring), which is released as a result of ingesting any addictive substance, but also by addictive behaviors like shopping, pornography, and video games.
Ever notice that alcoholics who give up drinking often start binge eating instead? Often they binge eat sugar, which delivers a milder version of the same effect. From a brain science point of view, both deliver a hit of dopamine.
From a spiritual or mindfulness perspective, both create a fog between our experience and reality, a cushion. For some time, the bills piling up on the desk or the run-in we had with a co-worker are put out of our minds. They are still there, but we are sort of buffered against them.
To top it off, if you have two parents that were or are addictable, the chances that you will have that same set of addictable genes are pretty much 100%, as far as science can tell at this point.
In addition to genetics, environment plays an important role in addictability. Dr. Gabor Mate has educated many on the effects of a stressful environment. In short, even a human born without the genes for addictability will, under stressful enough circumstances, become addictable.
However, neuroplasticity considered, it must be that the opposite also holds true – that a person who is innately addictable can, in nourishing enough circumstances, become less addictable.
In addition, the element of self-awareness, which is, according to many, a trait unique to humans, gives us the ability to see a pattern as destructive and then make a plan to change it.
Comedian Louis CK pokes fun at this when he says something like, “If you see a food that makes you go mmmmm, you should just eat it. That’s your essence talking.” In my mind, this is a play on our ability to be self-aware and make change, and actually choose to not eat that food, though we don’t always employ that ability to choose.
How Can We Improve Neuroplasticity and Heal Addictability, In One Shot?
Okay folks, here is where I make a confession. While I have read research on activities that improve neuroplasticity, I actually have not seen research on the potential of healing addictability itself.
Much of the avenues being explored at the moment in this regard have to do with medications that neutralize the addictive genes.
I am going solely on my own theory, which is, that if enough love, nourishment, relaxation, compassion and care can relieve stress – once cause of addictability – then can’t it also reverse the addictability itself?
The activities on this list are ones found to increase neuroplasticity, and they also promote the relief of stress, potentially healing addictability itself:
- Engaging in new challenges that require the whole brain (left and right sides) – such as learning a new language, a musical instrument, or juggling.
- Focused attention
- Making new friends (human connection)
- Green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts)
The best thing about neuroplasticity is that it has a rapid reward. You can sit down and study a new language, or pay close attention to a single task, like budgeting, for two hours and your brain will be changed. It may feel hard at first, but if you persist and push through the initial resistance, you’ll start to understand more about the subject you are focused on, and your confidence will increase.
Once you experience, firsthand, neuroplasticity at work, there will be no doubt inside you that you can make change, and that one day binge eating can be a very distant memory.
The action steps here are:
- Have hope.
- Resist binging when you can and replace binging with an eating schedule that you stick to each day, rewiring the brain (stick to the portion sizes as well!)
- Take on some of the above-mentioned activities to improve neuroplasticity.