Brain & body: why getting lean may be all in your head

Have you ever tried to lose weight, doing everything you possibly can, only to find that you lost a measly 5 pounds or regained the weight after a couple of weeks? It’s probably not because you’re slacking on your workout regimen or eating a poor diet. It’s more probable that it’s because of the body’s evolutionary mechanism for survival. It’s probably because of the set-point.

For most of human history we have been nomads, we have lived through wars and famines, always on the search for our next meal or bite of something nutritious. Our bodies have adapted to find a healthy weight with a bit of excess fat, so that we’ll be able to survive when a famine strikes or we have to go weeks without food.

This adaptation has led to what scientist are calling, the “set-point.” The set-point is a mechanism located in the hypothalamus of the brain that regulates body fat by modifying metabolic processes.

The set-point finds a healthy, yet somewhat fatty body composition and stays there. That’s why some people can eat until their heart’s content and not gain weight while others can calorie restrict but not lose any weight at all. Once the body has found its sweet spot, it wants to stay there. It wants to stay there and resists any extreme deviation from the set-point.

So how does this work and what’s going on in the control center of our body to make this happen?

Say hello to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus has many different nuclei, one in particular is called the arcuate nucleus. This is where the magic happens. The arcuate nucleus is part of a system called the Central Melanocortin System. Say that three times fast. This system is comprised of three primary polypeptides: pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), and co-expressing agouti-related peptide (AgRP)/neuropeptide Y (NPY). 

These peptides respond to the various circulating hormones and nutrients in the body, such as insulin, leptin, ghrelin, glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids. The job of these peptides is to regulate energy intake and expenditure. POMC is what we call “anorexigenic,” meaning that it’s responsible for decreasing food intake and increasing energy output. AgRP and NPY are “orexigenic,” increasing food intake and decreasing expenditure.

The purpose is always to reach a balance.

Sounds like a solid physiological system, right? It is, the problem lies in our modern lifestyles.

In our nomadic days, when there was never a stable source of food, the body used this feedback control system to store what fat the body had in between hunts and also to send signals to the brain that it was time to find food or else starve.

Today we still have the same brain mechanism as our nomadic brothers and sisters, but there’s one main thing that has changed: our food consumption. Not only are we consuming more, but we are consuming worse. The over-abundant consumption of macronutrients, such as simple carbohydrates and saturated fatty acids, damages the neuronal population of the hypothalamus, resulting in the set-point being pushed higher up. Couple this with a more sedentary lifestyle and you have the reason for more overweight individuals who can’t seem to lose weight.

The good news: modern science is showing that the set-point can actually be reset! Thanks to innovative research, scientist are discovering how the set-point works and how to manipulate it so that it doesn’t get pushed up too high.  

It took some mice and a hypergravitational environment for scientists to discover this. A study in 2004 exposed two groups of mice to twice the amount of earth’s gravity. One group was full of wildtype rats and the other group consisted of rats missing their otoconia, a primary component of the vestibular system. What was found was that only the rats with an intact vestibular system showed a reduction in body fat. The rats with the missing otoconia, in other words, a non-functional vestibular system, did not show the same reduction in body fat.

So it appears that the vestibular system plays an essential role in the body’s ability to lose weight.

This got people thinking: how exactly does this vestibular system play a role in weight loss? Let’s do some more experiments.

From mice to humans.

In 2011, studies using Vestibular Nerve Stimultion (VeNS) were conducted. VeNS, also called galvanic vestibular stimulation is a non-invasive technique that activates the vestibular system via passing current of .5Hz to 1mA over the mastoid bones behind the ears. This causes a subtle swaying sensation, like being on a boat. What this does is stimulate the otolith organs in the inner ear, which then modifies the nervous system and other bodily functions.

Researchers Dr. Jason McKeown and Dr. Paul McGeoch conducted a clinical trial with 9 pre-obese or obese individuals, that is people with BMI’s of 25 or above. 6 of these individuals were in the treatment group and 3 of these individuals were in the sham stimulation.

All participants underwent a DXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan, measuring BMI and fat composition, before the treatment began. Within the following four months, each participant underwent 40 hours of total stimulation. During this time participants did not change their lifestyle or diet.

Here’s what happened:

The treatment group showed an 8.3% decrease in truncal fat, and a reduction in total body fat of 6.3%.

At the same time, the control group showed an 8.6% increase in truncal fat and a 6% increase in total body fat. To read the full breakdown of the clinical trials, and all of the results, take a click here.

It was from these results that Neurovalens was inspired to create a functional device that anyone can use for weight loss, that anyone can use to energize their brain in a way to help them make smarter decisions about eating and living a healthier life.

This research has helped us understand that we are not at the will of our set-point, that we can take our health into our own hands, and live truly healthfully and happily.

Hannah Heimer
Hannah Heimer

I’m a brain enthusiast and yoga fanatic. I work as a researcher at the University of California, San Diego while also running a yoga business on the side.

I use brain research and yoga as a springboard to blog about lifestyle, health, happiness, and how it all relates to your brain.

Just like the nerve cells in our brains, I love making new connections. So, feel free to reach out. For more info on yoga and the brain, take some time to explore neuroyogini.com.