Anyone struggling with a chronic health challenge like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, knows how difficult it is to maintain a healthy weight. We get a double whammy; ongoing aches and pains make exercise difficult and constant fatigue means even on days we’re not outright hurting, we’re too exhausted to get moving. That’s not great because lack of movement then makes us more sluggish and in our search for some energy many of us turn to high sugar or refined starch foods. When that pattern is repeated, we can become addicted to these foods and what generally follows is weight gain, inability to lose weight, and exacerbation of our symptoms.
When I’m not careful with my diet and start to rely on my old fave sugar (or starch, which breaks down into sugar and is basically the same in your body) I get symptoms that I can normally keep at bay, such as headaches, PMS, achy joints, back pain, digestive distress, sleep issues, energy swings, and of course, weight gain. I know this and yet…many times I have gone through periods of eating well and feeling great, followed by using foods to deal with stress that pops up and then a return of nasty fibro symptoms that I thought were gone for good. My experience working with other “fibro folks,” and even the general population, tells me I am far from alone in this pattern. So why do we do this?
I’m going to use a strong word but I do think it often applies in this sugar/carb seeking scenario: addiction. It’s also called emotional eating because we go against what we factually know is good for us in order to soothe uncomfortable emotions. Things go poorly at work, we grab a snack. Boyfriend or life partner is unreasonable (or we feel lonely if we’re single) and we think a dessert will make us feel better. Bored? Tired? Lonely? Having a life crisis? Most of us will reach for sugar or empty carbs in these times although that only compounds our problems in the long run, especially for those of us with chronic health issues.
There’s a very interesting new book about addiction called Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari. In it, he cites Bruce Alexander, who discovered in the 1970s that lack of connection is at the root of all addictions. Before Alexander questioned it, studies involving rats seemed to prove that, given the choice between plain water and water laced with a narcotic, rats would overwhelmingly prefer the drugged water and most would keep drinking it until they overdosed and died. It was concluded that the narcotics somehow transfixed the rats until they were powerless to stop using it. However, Alexander noted that the rats in these experiments were always extremely stressed, as they were put alone in a stark empty cage where they had nothing at all to do but drink from the bottles.
So he created “Rat Park,” an elaborate testing cage that provided all the comforts of a cushy rat home. The rats here had toys to play with, tasty food, other rats to provide companionship and sex, and plenty of room. When the rats were tested in this scenario many of them still tried both the plain and the drugged water, probably out of curiosity, but they all preferred the plain water and none of them overdosed on the drug. Scientists concluded that the rats in Rat Park did not become addicted because they were in comfortable surroundings and were happier and socially connected.
Most of us have been taught to believe that whatever drug (or in this case sugar/carbs) that we are abusing somehow “hooks” us until we cannot stop using it. But, there are many cases where people are on a drug while in a bad situation and then stop once their situation improves. Author Hari points out the Vietnam War, and says that nearly 20% of our soldiers were using heroin regularly while overseas. Once they returned home, to their loved ones and safe homes, very few of them continued using drugs. They simply stopped.
Hospitals routinely use strong narcotics when someone has a serious injury or post-surgery but a vast majority of those patients go home and no longer crave the drug.
So, the point Johann Hari makes in his book is great news for those of us who seem to feel a strong pull towards foods that are not healthy. We simply need to change our cage from the stark, stressed one to the “Rat Park” comfy cage. How to do that?
Best case scenario is to get more connected, and I do not mean via social media, which studies show tends to be further isolating. It’s best to get out there and make some real, in-person connections with people you like!
Here are some quick suggestions:
- Take a fun class.(always wanted to learn to knit? Do it!).
- Join a gentle exercise (tai chi, chair yoga) or walking group.
- Start a book club with a few friends. Meet monthly.
- Get more involved at your place of worship.
- Volunteer in an interest area: if you love pets, help out at an animal rescue.
- Organize a monthly pot luck with health conscious friends, and focus on nutritious foods.
What will you do this month to strengthen your social connections?
Please share your ideas with us and leave a comment below. And feel free to share this post on your social media if you liked it and want to help others. If you re-post, please include the bio below.
About the author:
Deborah A. Genovesi is a certified holistic health coach who focuses on helping women boost their energy, lose weight naturally and feel healthier than they have in years. Deborah battled fibromyalgia and suffered debilitating symptoms for about 15 years before discovering how to restore her health. Today she is 80 lbs lighter and no longer suffers from chronic fatigue, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, GERD, high blood pressure, migraines, constant neck and back pain, skin issues, or pre-diabetes.