"Why can’t I lose weight?"
Carolyn came to my office in a state. A specialist nurse with a busy career and active social life, she had been battling to lose weight for many years. “I’ve tried every diet in the book but failed to stick with any of them,” she told me. She decided to see if hypnotherapy could help her.
Where diets fail and hypnotherapy succeeds
As I do with each client, I undertook a detailed consultation to better understand what was keeping Carolyn from attaining – and sustaining – her goal weight. What emerged in Carolyn’s story were elements that I have heard in many of my clients’ stories.
In this article, I will be delving into a common issue – food cravings – and how hypnotherapy can help you to overcome this.
People who come to my practice for help with weight management often talk about cravings for a specific type of unhealthy food. They call themselves “sugar addicts” or “carb addicts”.
Sometimes they experience these cravings at a certain time of day or when engaged in a routine activity - “I crave sugar snacks in the mid-afternoon. Can you help me break the habit?”
Without addressing the underlying psychological and physiological factors, including our habits and beliefs driving our food cravings, we are unlikely to attain and maintain a healthy weight. As hypnotherapists, we are trained in understanding the science and psychology behind weight management issues, so that we can better assist our clients.
Here are a few important factors to consider.
The case of the overweight mice
1994 was a big year for health researchers, who discovered that one genetically altered strain of mouse consumed more than others and, as a result, these mice were obese. “When researchers administered a new substance, leptin (from leptos meaning ‘thin’ in Greek), the mice lost weight,” says Helen Kollias (PhD) of Precision Nutrition Coaching.
Both leptin and ghrelin are vital hormones that influence our appetite and hunger signals. According to Dr Ananya Mandal (MD), studies have shown that an absence of leptin in our body, or so-called 'leptin resistance' can lead to uncontrolled eating and weight gain. Think of leptin as the unsung superhero in your body, suppressing the potentially 'villainous' effects of appetite stimulants.
“When fat mass decreases, the level of plasma leptin falls, so that appetite is stimulated,” says Mandal. “Interestingly, there is also a drop in body temperature and suppression of energy expenditure.”
Leptin is mainly secreted in fat cells, as well as the stomach, heart, placenta, and skeletal muscle. Leptin decreases hunger. Conversely, ghrelin is secreted primarily in the lining of the stomach and increases hunger. Leptin correlates with fat mass, explains Kollias. “The more fat you have, the more leptin you produce.” Ideally (and more on that later).
The reason for this brilliant symbiosis is because leptin, made by adipose tissue (or fat), is secreted into the circulatory system, where it travels to the hypothalamus in the brain. “Leptin tells the hypothalamus that we have enough fat, so we can eat less or stop eating. Conversely, the less fat you have, the less leptin you have, and the hungrier you’ll be.”
Research from Monash University in Australia suggests that leptin can substantially increase thermogenesis, helping to burn fat. Sounds perfect, right? Well, it turns out that this superhero has its own type of kryptonite.
What happens when the leptin signal fails?
Leptin’s job may have been easy back when we were hunters and gatherers and subsisted on a balanced diet. But modern vices such as overeating have led to what’s known as 'leptin resistance'. While a bit of fat will initiate the appropriate leptin/brain response, too much actually disrupts the leptin signal, in the same way that a WiFi signal can be interrupted.
Author of The Fat Resistance Diet, Leo Galland, says: “The leptin signal isn’t being heard, so it cannot stimulate your metabolism or suppress your appetite.”
Kollias explains that this triggers a vicious cycle. “The brain thinks you’re starving, which makes you want to eat more.”
Other factors can also contribute to 'turning off' or diminishing the leptin signal, including lack of sleep and exercise. Research at Laval University in Quebec found that seven to eight hours of sleep each night was linked with higher leptin levels. By contrast, the study found that less sleep led to lower levels of leptin and higher Body Mass Index (BMI).
Leptin resistance and insulin resistance are similar in that they share common signalling pathways, and both appear to occur in the obese, says Kollias. “Insulin resistance occurs when there’s lots of insulin being produced (for example, with a diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates), but the body and brain have stopped ‘listening’ to insulin’s effects.”
How can hypnotherapy help?
When someone is under hypnosis, their attention is far more attuned and they are more responsive to suggestions, including behaviour changes that can help you lose weight. Hypnotherapy can help combat leptin resistance by guiding you to choose healthier food choices, limit overeating, and improve your sleep patterns.
Studies have shown that those receiving hypnosis experience better satiety, thus reducing cravings.
The role of the brain
Dr Kate Beaven-Marks, director of leading UK-based international hypnotherapy training provider, HypnoTC, explains how both our short and long-term memory contribute to our cravings for certain foods – particularly sugar. This is due in part to the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps us recall foods and distinguish flavours. “Interestingly, the neurons in the hippocampus can change with a high sugar diet,” says Beaven-Marks. The result is that we might not actually “remember” to eat healthily.
Other parts of your brain also play a role. Crave that sudden 'hit' from eating your favourite chocolate? That’s because of the basal ganglia, involved in reward-seeking behaviour. Enjoy a few biscuits every time you drink a cup of tea? That’s partly because of the caudate nucleus, which forms habitual behaviours.
Have you ever longed for an unhealthy food after seeing it in an advert? Like suddenly craving ice cream after hearing the crunch as the actor bites into it. That’s because of the part of the brain that responds to sensory experiences known as the insula, which advertisers know very well how to manipulate. “It doesn’t even take the taste of that cold beer to raise your dopamine levels; just the thought will cause a spike of pleasure,” says Beaven-Marks.
How can hypnotherapy help?
“Because these habits tend to be outside of conscious awareness, they can be more challenging to change,” says Beaven-Marks. As hypnotherapists, we are trained in how to use hypnosis to teach others to recognise cravings and other “conditioned responses” and re-programme the subconscious to be more supportive in helping them.
Psychological factors also play a significant role in weight loss. Psychotherapist Peter Michaelson says food can be used positively to nourish us in a healthy sense, and adversely, to feed inner conflict. “Cravings for food can arise from the emotional impression that something vital is missing. That missing something is psychological. The hunger is emotional. It arises because of one’s disconnect from self, as if one’s own emotional self is starving for recognition, appreciation, significance, and a feeling of value.”
How can hypnotherapy help?
“We can overcome this conflict by understanding the unhealthy psychological ingredients we bring to the table,” says Michaelson. Hypnotherapy, which is a natural, gentle process in which you go in and out of trance several times a day without even realising, can assist with this powerful process of inner awareness.
After just three hypnotherapy sessions, Carolyn, the client who came to my office looking for help with her weight, noticed significant progress. “I now have the strength to resist foods that do not help me reach my goal of fitting in that special dress for my son’s wedding,” she wrote to me. “Not only have I lost 10lb after only three sessions, but I continue to have the confidence boost I need to progress with my weight loss.”