Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Your Body is Smarter Than You Are

Another sentence that comes out of my mouth way too often is: "Your body is smarter than you are." And, while it may be particularly appropriate in eating disorder treatment, it's something important for all of us to realize (and/or remember).

Think about it: our bodies hold the accumulated wisdom of generations - eons - of evolution. They have adapted to perform all of our biological functions efficiently and effectively, without requiring much thought. That's good for (at least) two reasons: it frees up our mental faculties for thinking creative and sophisticated things (resulting in the invention, innovation, art and culture that distinguish humans from other creatures), and it ensures that we don't forget to do important know, like breathe. Yes, while our minds may be capable of amazing feats, our bodies are even smarter.

Someone asked me today, if our bodies are so smart, why are so many people obese? The answer (which applies not only to eating, but to a range of health areas) is that we let our minds override our bodies.

In fact, we're taught to do so from a very young age. For example, if we stick with the example of eating, most of our early eating decisions are based on something other than hunger or fullness. Our parents give us what their minds tell them is an appropriate amount of food. We're told to clean our plates. We're told that some foods are good, and others are bad. We're given food as a reward or celebration, or to comfort or cheer us. Most of us are not taught to eat when we're hungry and stop when we're full, or to notice what our bodies are hungry for. By the time we're adults, eating has become much more cognitive and emotional than biological.

We screw up sleep in a similar way. We stay up too late, we get up too early. We work odd hours and fly across the world. All of these behaviors override our bodies' natural rhythms, leading to a population that is almost chronically sleep deprived.

The bottom line is that, as smart, innovative, and resourceful as our minds can be, we think we can outsmart our bodies. We try to make decisions about our biology based on thoughts and feelings, and are surprised when our thoughts and feelings mislead us.

Instead, I would encourage us all to take the radical step of allowing our bodies to do their job. What if we began to check in with our bodies, to notice hunger and fullness, tiredness and alertness, and all the other cues our bodies give us? I suspect doing so would both benefit our health, and free up our mental space for more important things.

The first step down this path is mindfulness - spending time intentionally checking in with our bodies, noticing sensations and cues, and becoming familiar with everything going on inside us. It is a learning process, and may take some time (especially if you've gotten into the habit of ignoring signals from your body!), but the payoff is well worth it!

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