As if it wasn’t bad enough that eating binges make you bloat like a whale, new evidence shows that overeating triggers a brain dysfunction that actually makes you overeat even more, which can lead to a host of obesity-related diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
A research team at the University of Wisconsin found that when you take in too many calories, your brain sends immune cells to attack and destroy invaders that don’t exist. It’s as if a master switch that normally remains shut off instead gets turned on, and when it does, that in turn triggers the immune reaction. This reaction triggers a chain of events, including making the body ignore signals from leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite, and also from insulin — the blood sugar regulator.
Naturally, when your body isn’t paying attention to the appetite-regulating hormone, you want to stuff face. You’ve probably noticed that the more you eat, the more you want to eat. This new research confirms that it’s not all in your head (well, actually it is — but in a different way), in fact, a biological process originating in your brain really does trigger increased appetite and causes insulin resistance after you enjoy too much rich food. The more you eat, the more the brain/immune system pathway is triggered, and then the more you want to eat — creating a vicious cycle. And this effect occurs even before you put on excess weight.
The scientists performed their study on mice, feeding them a massively fatty, sugar-laden diet (it’s the only way to go if you happen to be a lab rat). They identified a compound called “IKKbeta/NK-kappaB” residing in large quantities in the hypothalamus of the mice, and though the compound normally remains inactive, an overload of calories turned it on. Once turned on, the immune reaction was set off. The researchers then found that through genetic engineering, they could shut down the IKKbeta/NK-kappa B reaction, which returned appetite to normal.
According to head researcher Dongsheng Cai, “Exercise and diet may correct abnormal brain regulation [but] long-term food control is very difficult. The first important thing to understand is how the dysregulation of the brain is processed. The study we just did provides a new pathway. It’s the opening of a new direction.”
The researchers believe that a drug could be developed or a form of gene therapy that would switch off the dysfunctional reaction. They see this as a way to address the obesity epidemic, since “diets and exercise rarely work.”
This could add up to good news if you can’t control your food intake in spite of good intentions — if you find your eating habits spiraling out of control. In the future, you might be able to stuff your face at the banquet and then pop a pill that will stifle the urge to finish all the leftovers the next morning. (Never mind the side effects and the cost to consumers and the astronomical profits bound to be made by the pharmaceutical companies, nor the lazy mentality that leads to the pop-a-pill-to-cure-all-ills thinking. With two-thirds of all US adults overweight and the numbers rising, we need to explore all avenues for combating obesity.)
In the meantime, before you stuff that second helping into your mouth, think not only about the impact of those extra calories on your hips, but also about you’re doing to your poor brain.