How do brain chemicals affect emotional eating?

Dr. Mike Clark, DPT
When it comes to emotional eating brain chemicals are highly influential. A major chemical involved with our emotions and mood state is called serotonin. Research shows that as we get more and more stressed out transmission of serotonin decreases, directly affecting our emotional state, causing us to feel down and out. Coincidentally, when we eat high sugar/ high carbohydrate foods it leads to an increase in chemicals that help our brain release more serotonin, temporarily elevating our mood and making us feel better emotionally. Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last very long, creating a perpetual cycle that causes us to continually crave unhealthy foods. The great thing is research demonstrates that exercise can also raise serotonin! To start elevating your mood, decreasing the effects of stress, and living healthier, here’s what I suggest:
  • Perform strength training exercise 2-3 days per week.
  • Perform cardio exercise 2-3 times per week for at least 30 minutes.
  • Get in 10,000 steps daily.
  • When you get cravings for unhealthy foods, drink 2 cups of water – research shows you'll eat less.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
What do the brain chemicals that influence our emotions have to do with whether or not you snack on a Hershey's bar or a plum? To illustrate it, let's use the feel-good chemical serotonin as an example.

Picture your brain as a pinball machine. You have millions of neurotransmitters that are sending messages to and from each other. When your serotonin transmitters fire the signals (from the flippers), it sends the message throughout your brain that you feel good; that message is strongest when that feel-good ball is frenetically bouncing around in your brain, racking up tons of yeah-baby points along the way.

But when you lose the ball down the chute (that is, when a serotonin cell in the brain takes the chemical and breaks it down), that love-the-world feeling you were just enjoying is lost. So what does your brain want to do? Put another quarter in the machine and get another ball. For many of us, that next ball comes in the form of foods that quickly make us feel good—or foods that provide an immediate rush of serotonin.

That rush can come with a jolt of sugar: sugar stimulates the release of serotonin. Insulin stimulates serotonin uptake into the brain, which in turn boosts our moods, makes us feel better, or masks the stress, pain, boredom, anger, or frustration that we may be feeling.

But serotonin is only one ball in play. You have other chemicals fighting to send your appetite and cravings from bumper to bumper. To see how the total picture works, think of these chemicals as parts of a scale. When the chemicals associated with positive feelings (like serotonin or dopamine) are in the up (or activated) position, you're chemically high.

But when they're down, you feel anxiety that sends you searching for the foods, especially those simple carbohydrates, that get you back to that chemical high. Knowing how your emotions can steer your desire to eat will help you to resist your cravings and, ideally, avoid them altogether. Your goal: Keep your feel-good hormones level so that you're in a steady state of satisfaction and never experience huge hormonal highs and lows that make you search for good-for-your-brain, bad-for-your-waist foods.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.