don’t worry, be happy (or how i learned to stop worrying and love the food)

The more I read Sapolsky’s book, the more I realize that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” should be everyone’s theme song or else we are all going to die of stress-related illnesses.

I guess that’s why the song was the first one I listened to after setting up my computer in SD – a hefty combination of reading Sapolsky on the plane and landing in a place with perfect weather and swaying palm trees. My subconscious was like, “Genna, we’re getting this summer off right, and you’re going to be relaxed.” Before I proceed into the intended topic of this post, I want to mention two anecdotes about my experience with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and its artist, Bobby McFerrin.

1) Freshman year, I was seeing the Philly-based “Viking vaudeville, manic Gypsy jazz” band Man Man play at their album release show. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the apt description.) After the second opener played, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” came on the loudspeaker. Also at this time, the venue’s management finally kicked on the fans, truly needed at the packed concert. The combination of the song and the fans made me feel a lot better, allowing me to mentally prepare for the headliner. But then “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played again. And again, ad nauseum. Seriously, eight or so times on involuntary repeat is not the way to enjoy this McFerrin classic. I would not be surprised if it actually caused some audience members to lose their dinner.

2) Bobby McFerrin was one of the panelists of the “Notes and Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus,” one of the events of the 2009 World Science Festival, joining the stage with host John Scaefer, Jamshed Barucha (current Tufts University Provost and a psychologist who studies cognitive neuroscience and music perception), Daniel Levitin (Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University whose research on music is widely published), Lawrence Parsons (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield). He demonstrates the universality of the pentatonic scale with an audience demonstration that I watch at least once a month because it is so cool.

And now a return to stress eating…

Sapolsky describes that stress effects food consumption, fat distribution, the health of the gastrointestinal tract, and ulcer formation. All things considered, he paints a pretty grim picture, one that I will try to summarize here.

Stress  makes two-thirds of people hyperphagic, marked by increased eating during periods of stress, and one-third of people hypophagic, marked by loss of appetite. Different stressors cause different responses, and these contribute to the demonstrated difference in eating behavior. Also, despite the stress response involving the same hormones regardless of individual, differences in each body’s physiological and psychological reactions to stress contribute to the divide between those who find comfort in an eating frenzy versus those who engage in a self-induced famine.

The first hormone released during the stress response is CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone); among other things, it is an appetite suppressor. It starts the chemical cascade that results in the release of glucocorticoids, a hormone that stimulates appetite. CRH surges the blood stream within seconds of a stressor, but it takes many minutes for glucocorticoid levels to enter the bloodstream. Also, it takes merely seconds for CRH to be cleared from the bloodstream while glucocorticoids can linger around for hours.  Frequent intermittent stressors, the kind that plague our lives, are the type of stress that most contributes to hyperphagia, so it is understandable that stress-eating has become such a casual part of the cultural vocabulary of food.

Sapolsky offers examples of the factors that contribute to these individual differences. Some people, for example, are glucocorticoid hypersecretors, and they are predisposed to experience hyperphagia after a period of stress. They produce greater levels of glucocorticoids in their bloodstream after experiencing stress as well as a greater preference for sweets. Another factor is an individual’s attitude towards eating. Sapolsky describes literature that shows that “restrained” eaters, or those who are trying to actively diet, are more likely to be hyperphagic. He explains how logical this is: when these individuals are stressed out, they ease up on something that they often keep highly regimented.

More to come on the other topics he covers (body shape, etc.). For now, I’m headed to the beach!