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October 7, 2022

How does your brain affect your weight loss journey?

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Many people have heard about the reward pathway in our brains, the path that gets stimulated by a reward and makes us want to do that again. This pathway is often attributed to the cravings for chocolate or soda. It is a brain signal that triggers the behavior. What many people may not know is that there is also an anti-reward pathway. This pathway stops us from doing things or perhaps even staying motivated based on past experiences.

The Habenula is the area in the brain that is in charge of this anti-reward pathway. This is the decision-maker in your journey of weight loss as it controls dopamine levels. Its Latin meaning ”little rein” indicates its power in the system of the brain. It is the rejection center and the kill switch for motivation. It’s a major influencer in regulating the brain’s response toward reward, pain, anxiety, and stress. Dieting gets severe rejection by your body and brain because the regulator of your body weight is the brain. Your body has a set point weight that is least concerned with your looks and your goal of a certain weight. Hunger hormones, Ghrelin and Leptin, are responsible for maintaining your body’s set point, and they guide your body about time for food intake, slowing down, and energy conservation.

Weight loss is actually resisted by the brain. Have you or anyone you know ever had the scenario where you are on day 8 of just eating salad, and before you know it, you end up eating your favorite dessert from the fridge? That kill switch was likely triggered from your habenula. Dieting triggers stress hormones related to weight gain, and your continuous suppression of hunger cues sends signals to the brain, and weight regulation gets affected. Your anti-reward pathway feels this as not rewarding or producing anxiety and pain from previous experiences and puts a halt on things triggering you to make a behavior change. Moreover, when your brain senses the low amount of leptin in your blood, it provokes you to eat more to maintain your set point. Your brain and body act like your well-wishers, which is why they have no concern with your desire to reduce weight.

Though your brain is a strict ruler, it can be tricked and handled with a smart approach. Your dream of weight loss can come true if you make your brain comfortable by lowering your set point weight. Starting with simpler and smaller healthier changes, like exercising, will give cues to your brain, and it will naturally support you in your weight-loss mission. Stress management, a sufficient amount of sleep, and physical activities enhance your fat-burning ability and contribute to weight loss. In the end, healthy behaviors should be the priority rather than focusing on a certain weight.

Your mental health is much more important than your desire to lose weight. You should play smart enough to deal with the aggressive anti-reward system of the habenula. Choosing to do more doable and natural habits that help you lose weight will make you feel over the moon and shoot up those dopamine levels, preventing the brain from triggering the anti-reward pathway and stimulating the reward pathway instead. By doing too much of a restrictive diet and expecting too much weight loss, you’re setting yourself up for a brain trigger. Your brain not only senses the restriction as described above but also senses you do not get the expected reward (i.e., the unrealistic weight loss), then your lateral habenula gets stimulated and shuts down your happy feelings. If you do not see any change in your weight for a long time, your lateral habenula becomes even more active. The real worrisome situation comes when Habenula starts sending signals at improper times. You need to be easy on yourself and take guilty-free steps to lose weight. You should focus on a mind plan rather than a meal plan to prevent triggering your habenula.

Article written by:

Franchell Hamilton

Franchell Hamilton MD, FACS, FASMBS, DABOM

Franchell Hamilton MD, FACS, FASMBS, DABOM is a board-certified surgeon who specializes in integrative obesity medicine and is the founder of NeuroSwitch Weight Loss. After completing her fellowship training in Bariatric Surgery, Dr. Hamilton went to work helping patients struggling with complex obesity. As her practice grew, she expanded her services and became board-certified in obesity medicine and received several certifications in neuroscience, functional medicine, and genetics. She has now combined all of these approaches into her trademarked program, NeuroSwitch Weightloss, which uses a brain-based and genetic approach as its foundation. She is the author of two books, “And The Best Diet Is” and “Transformation is a Mindset”, and frequently lectures with other thought leaders in the cardiometabolic space on the clinical application of integrating neuroscience and genetics in the treatment of obesity and bariatrics.