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HealthWatch: Better Health May Depend On Re-Wiring Primitive Brain

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) - Bay Area researchers say the key to finding a diet you can stick to and improving overall health may be in retraining your brain.

Emotional Brain Training, or EBT for short, focuses on changing the brain by essentially re-wiring deep emotional circuits. The technique is being used today to treat obesity, eating disorders and chronic stress.

EBT Research: Hypothesis Journal | American Dietetic Association - SCAN's Pulse, Winter 2011 | 2-Year Follow-Up Study

The idea behind EBT is that, when we're under stress, an ancient part of our brain kicks in, releasing hormones for fight or flight, to preserve survival. That's good thing if you're being chased by lions. But in our modern-day lives, the stress comes not from an occasional lion, but from nagging persistent psychological fears.

"The momentary stress for me, for my survival, is to have an effective stress response that I can run away from lions. But there aren't many lions anymore," said UCSF health psychologist Laurel Mellin.

To calm the persistent stress of modern life, we tend to use comfort food like a drug.

"Comfortable things tend to be things that make you transiently happy-  ice cream, cookies, cake, chocolate. I'm Italian, so (for me) pasta," said UCSF researcher and kidney specialist Dr. Lynda Frassetto.

Those foods only make matters worse, according to the UCSF research team. They cause biochemical changes in the body, and actually fuel inflammation and stress.

"And we certainly don't appreciate that the foods we put in our body - sugary fatty foods - actually ramp up our stress. And when we ramp up our stress, that causes our brains to activate those strong emotional drives to overeat," said  Mellin.

These strong emotional drives - encoded deep into the brain - activate a circuit that causes us to overeat, use drugs, and lose emotional control. When stress comes into the brain, the thinking brain and the primitive emotional brain are at odds. The emotional brain always wins.

"Stress starts coming up during the day, and more and more the brain state moves down so that the extremes and maladaptive areas of the brain are in charge. At that point we're not the same person," said Mellin. "The drives for common excesses ramp up so they are unstoppable."

According to researchers, the antidote is focusing on treating the source of the stress itself by re-wiring the emotional brain.

Mellin teaches emotional brain training in small groups. She's the author of "Wired for Joy" which explains the concept, and the solutions.

Mellin trains individuals to process daily stress more effectively, and then to fuel their bodies with foods that don't ramp up stress.

"We're using a food plan that's really consistent with our genes to decrease stress on the brain," said Mellin.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, meats and healthy fats. - in other words, the Paleo, or caveman diet.

Mellin said if you stop overeating without re-wiring that emotional survival level drive, you'll substitute something else. You'll get a cross-addiction.

The whole idea behind this method of stress reduction is not just to get out of stress and into a calm, neutral state - but actually to work toward being happy and upbeat.

For more on Emotional Brain Training, go to:

(Copyright 2011 by CBS SF. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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