Brain & body: respect your hippopotomas

When you hear the word neuroscience, what do you think? If you’re like many others you may think it sounds complicated, on the level of rocket-science.

The truth is, we don’t know that much about the brain.

The brain is like a star in a far away galaxy, like the deepest depths of the ocean. It’s a territory that we’ve just begun to explore.

There’s still a lot of uncharted space!

Every neuroscientist and every research study adds tremendously to our knowledge of the brain. And we at Neurovalens want to bring you this information in an exciting and understandable way. That’s why we’ve created The Weekly Brain Buzz, a column designed to highlight a different part of the brain for your thinking pleasure.

In addition, we’ll be showing you how these parts of the brain relate to your behavior and lifestyle. Not only will you get the science, but you’ll get the practical, real-life application behind the science.

So, let’s jump in with this week’s brain buzz.

Drum roll please…

Your brain on Stress Eating: The hypothalamus.


Stress changes the brain dramatically, in particular, the hypothalamus.

I have a nickname for this part of the brain: the hippopotamus. I call it the hippopotamus partially because when I first learned about the hypothalamus I couldn’t spell or say it, and partially because when I’m stressed this part of the brain turns me into a ravenous creature on the search for food.


Ok, so now hopefully you won’t forget that stress eating and the hypothalamus go hand in hand.

The hypothalamus is a tiny section of the brain that sits at the bottom, directly by the pituitary gland. It’s part of the limbic system, one of the oldest systems of the brain that regulates emotions.

Because it’s so close to the pituitary gland, it plays a big role in the endocrine system (the hormonal system), secreting hormones to suppress or increase your appetite.

Different types of stress tell the hypothalamus to secrete different hormones.

Short-term stress actually decreases appetite. This happens because the hypothalamus produces corticotropin releasing hormone, a hormone that sends a signal from the hypothalamus to the adrenal glands and says,

“Give me adrenaline!”

Adrenaline pumps out, putting you in a ‘fight or flight’ mode, decreasing appetite and increasing the body’s physical abilities for the time being. This happens through the hypothalamic pituitary axis, as pictured below.

portable-network-graphics-image-894c078febc3-1The bigger problem comes when stress persists, when stress is a constant state of being.

Under high, chronic stress, the hypothalamus cues the adrenals to release cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite. So, if your cortisol is always pumping, you may decide to reach over for that piece of chocolate or slice of bread even if you’re not hungry.

The hypothalamus also regulates thirst, fatigue, and circadian rhythms.

When you’re thirsty, tired, and your sleeping patterns are off, what happens in your body? It’s in a state of stress, a state of chronic stress where the hypothalamus shoots out cortisol, preventing you from sleeping well and causing you to have poor eating habits. Poor eating habits then make your brain feel weird and the downward spiral continues.

So, the take home message:
treat your hippopotamus with respect!


If you don’t want the ravenous, crazed hippopotamus to be on the loose, you’ve got to keep hydrated, sleep well, and do your best to stay away from chronic stress.

Our world today is full of people, events, and situations that cause 24-hour stress. We stress-out in fear. In fear of losing a job, in fear of flunking a test, in fear of hurting a loved one. Stress and fear are here to protect us, to protect us from potential physical and emotional harm. However, sometimes our body takes it a bit too far. Even though it’s only trying to protect us, it squeezes us too tight.

If we can learn to regulate our response to stress we can change our experience.

Next time you feel stress: Pause.

Take a couple of deep depths and think about your brain. Think about what’s happening inside your skull. Think about the hypothalamus and all of the hormones and chemicals moving around in your brain. Take a few seconds to be in awe of your body, to be in wonder of how biology works. Realize what’s happening and then let it go.

By doing this you are no longer a victim of the hippopotamus, you are the tamer of the hypothalamus. Whenever it rears it’s head asking for unnecessary food, you have the tools and power to tell it no.  

So, that’s the hypothalamus for ya.

Go pet and love your hippopotamus.

From my brain and heart to yours,

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