FEEL EMPOWERED!Dec 30, 2021 09:00AM ● By Nancy Seigle
by Julia Snyder
The new year is a time for new beginnings. Many of us make resolutions for personal improvements. Living healthier and happier are two common themes. Yet, it can be highly difficult for us to follow through on our goals, or make the changes our healthcare providers or spiritual leaders have recommended. According to David and Austin Perlmutter’s book, Brain Wash, the part of our brain that is involved in decision making, called the prefrontal cortex, has been hijacked by our modern society’s processed foods, excessive screen time, lack of sleep and sedentary lifestyle. When inflamed by these factors, the prefrontal cortex isn’t able to process the information necessary to make decisions. Instead, the more primal impulsive emotional part of our brain called the amygdala takes over. Dr. Perlmutter likens this to taking the adult out of the room. He calls this lack of connection to prefrontal cortex “Disconnection Syndrome.” Understanding this may be the key to help you take back control.
Our large prefrontal cortex is what makes us human. It allows us to grasp the long-term consequences of our decisions and have empathy and compassion for ourselves and others. When the amygdala is more active, it fosters impulsivity and an us-versus-them mentality. Disconnection from our prefrontal cortex can lead to feelings of disconnection with others around us, leading to feelings of stress and loneliness. We are hardwired to be social beings. This was evolutionarily advantageous so that members of tribes could work together for protection and pool food resources to make it through the long winter. In today’s time, social media makes us think we are connecting with others, but we are, in reality, spending more time in front of a screen seeing facades instead of authentically connecting, creating even more harm.
Food is another way that our evolutionary system is hacked by modern industry. Having a sweet tooth is a survival mechanism. Sweetness told our hunter-gatherer ancestors that the fruit was ripe. The sugar in the fruit told their body’s physiology to lay down a layer of fat to help make it through the winter when food was scarce. These were protective. Now, in Western culture there is no scarcity of food in the winter, yet according to the authors, 68 percent of food sold in U.S. grocery stores contain added sweetener. These high-sugar foods promote inflammation, reducing prefrontal cortex activity and leading to more poor choices. Then the cycle can continue with weight gain, increased stress hormone and decreased sleep quality—each one, furthering the inflammation and promoting more disconnection.
There are ways to get out of this vicious cycle. First, let go of the blame and judgement for lack of willpower or laziness. Instead, celebrate little victories and take one small step. According to behavioral change researcher at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg, lasting change starts from doing something small that makes us feel good. His model also includes the importance of a prompt. This is something to remind us to initiate the behavior. He recommends pairing it to something we already do regularly. For example, if the goal is to exercise, start by doing two push-ups as the shower water warms up and tell yourself “good job” or sing a victory song. It’s the positive emotion that helps us springboard to bigger things. This positive emotion helps in activating the left-prefrontal cortex, bringing back connection and more good choices.
Each person may want to think about where the best place for them to try to break into this disconnection cycle. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Get rid of one food/drink with added sugar
- Start with two push-ups or a five-minute walk
- Spend five minutes in nature or get a house plant or a photo of nature scenery
- Call a friend or set up a date every week
- Focus on your breath for one minute while you are brushing your teeth
- Go to bed 15 minutes earlier
- Use technology mindfully, turn off notifications or set timers for use
Feeling empowered to make these small but important changes will help in rewiring the brain, to take back control of the prefrontal cortex, allowing for better decisions, more compassion and connection. As we as a human population can foster empathy and honor diversity of culture and beliefs, the better we can communicate and grow from one another, and the more cooperation and peace we can attain for our planet.
So, go ahead and start with just two push-ups.
Julia Snyder, M.D., is board certified in Integrative and Holistic Medicine and Family Medicine. Golden Light Integrative & Holistic Medicine is located at 703 E. Main St., Moorestown. She can be reached at GoldenLightMD.com .