The Gut Talks to the Brain

Big Bubba's Bad BBQ
Treena Wynes knows all about the emotional-eating cycle and how to conquer it. Formerly a bulimic teen who fought a years-long battle with compulsive eating, she became a social worker and weight-loss counselor, specializing in emotional dependency on food. Cravings and addiction, the brain, the hormones — Wynes shows how they are tied together and what to do about loosening the knot.

The Treena Wynes style is demonstrated by a guest post at, where she talks about food addiction. The first thing to get clear on is, humans tend to use foods like drugs, for stimulation and self-medication. An un-neurotic, well-functioning human, whether child or adult, operates best from a foundation of stable mood, mental alertness, and creative thinking. This applies to the obese, the non-obese, and the potentially obese alike.

When the world goes haywire, a lot of people tend to react by eating the wrong stuff in an attempt to feel better. The events of a day can cause our hormones to send numerous and often contradictory messages throughout our bodies, and too often we react by wolfing down as many sugary, fatty, refined-starchy edibles as we can get our hands on. Junk food coaxes our brains into producing serotonin and endorphines, which are feel-good drugs.

Women are especially vulnerable to this craziness because of the hormonal chaos of their monthly cycles. Wynes says:

Within a minute of consuming a diet cola and cookie your body becomes highly stressed trying to neutralize the destructive impact of these ‘foods.’ First your body sends out adrenaline, ‘the fight or flight’ hormone as it senses your body is being attacked. Then endorphin and serotonin levels go up making you feel good temporarily. Insulin is called onto the scene to deal with the excessive high blood sugar. The insulin also tells your body to store fat. After the insulin has completed its job, your energy and mental stamina start to plummet. This brings forward your stress hormone, cortisol, to release emergency sugar stores from the liver so you don’t pass out. Since cortisol doesn’t usually feel pleasant, it motivates us to get rid of it…

…. Which, of course, leads to a quest for more comfort food. And there you have it, the basic vicious cycle. Dr. Pretlow has written extensively about vicious cycles in relation to food addiction, and the comfort-food trap is only one of the many vicious cycles of obesity that he describes in Overweight: What Kids Say.

Dr. Pretlow adds:

In addition to the vicious cycle of emotional eating, there is emerging evidence that brain changes occur to perpetuate the soothing of unpleasant emotions with food. Once significant brain changes have taken place, the individual is unable to cease the comfort eating — he/she is addicted. Addiction treatment methods are therefore needed to deal with obesity.

Science is finding hard evidence to back up what so many people have unfortunately learned from experience, that food can be addictive, as Denise Mann describes in “Why Comfort Foods Are So Comforting.”

In Belgium, at the University of Leuven, a research team with Dr. Lukas Van Oudenhove at its helm peeked into the brains of 12 normal-sized, healthy people. Each subject was shown sad or neutral pictures while sad or neutral music played, and each subject’s body was infused with either fatty acids (active agent) or saline solution (placebo) via a feeding tube. The people who unknowingly got the fatty acids ended up feeling about half as sad as the others.

The conclusion was:

These findings increase our understanding of the interplays among emotions, hunger, food intake and meal-induced sensations in general which may have important implications for a wide range of disorders including obesity, eating disorders, and depression.

Mann also called in the opinions of other medical professionals such as Dr. Louis Aronne, who said:

The areas of the brain that get activated or suppressed as a result of emotion and mood were impacted by fatty acid emulsion… Many things in obesity have been said to be psychological and this adds to the body of evidence that something physical is going on.

Dr. Giovanni Cizza summed it up eloquently:

There must be a way in which the gut talks to the brain.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Understanding Food Cravings,”
Source: “Why Comfort Foods Are So Comforting,” WebMD, 07/25/11
Image by permanently scatterbrained (eric molina), used under its Creative Commons license.

One Response

  1. Tackling childhood obesity takes a multi-faceted approach. Education in nutrition and exercise is not enough. People turn to quick solutions to address weight-gain, however fad diets or products do not address our emotional dependency on foods. Stress can manifest stress-eating which actually exacerbates our stress due to the addicting foods we choose. There is a bigger picture here and people need to understand the underlying reasons of emotional-eating and how to conquer it. I started educating people one to one through my weight-loss counselling service and then turned to writing a book. My personal experience of having a compulsive eating disorder certainly helps me speak from the heart about the intensity of food cravings and feeling like a hostage to food.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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