We humans are pleasure seekers. In fact, in order to ensure our survival, there are mechanisms embedded in our genes that “wire” us to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy.
Unfortunately, since nature’s plan for guiding us towards survival and reproduction is a system dependent on what feels good, the door is wide open for choices that can lead us down the wrong path.
We all love to eat, and enjoying food beyond simple sustenance is a normal part of life. It becomes problematic when we overeat to such an extent that there is significant weight gain or health risk.
When we eat in the absence of physical hunger cues, regularly choose unhealthy comfort foods, or eat when we’re already full, something is out of balance somewhere.
Chronic unpleasant emotions, unmet needs, negative, critical self-defeating thoughts, unresolved pain from childhood and a lack of self-acceptance and self-love can lead to emotional overeating. This overeating is driven by an exaggerated desire for pleasure, soothing, comfort, fulfillment, excitement and distraction.
It’s a no brainer that food is often used as a replacement for sex and sensual contact. Pleasure hormones, like endorphins, are released from both activities. Chocolate feels like love, right? But can emotional overeating actually lower your sex drive?
The answer is a resounding yes, on a number of fronts.
First and foremost, excess weight can make us feel less sexy. Body shame often leads to emotional eating and a corresponding withdrawal from intimacy. And in an unending viscous cycle, lack of intimacy leads back to emotional eating. Studies have found that female sexual functioning—arousal, lubrication, orgasm and satisfaction—is significantly lower in overweight women than in women of a normal weight.
Secondly, we tend to select unhealthy comfort foods when we eat emotionally. Most likely you’ve noticed that when you’re feeling down or lonely, it isn’t broccoli that you’re craving. Fatty foods, like fried foods, meats and rich dairy products can lift our dopamine levels and release those feel-good chemicals. At the same time, these foods, often full of unnatural trans-fatty acids and chemicals, can dramatically decrease libido. Processed foods like cookies, muffins, crackers and chips also tend to be libido zappers as they are high in trans-fats and simple sugars, which may reduce blood flow and cause inflammation.
And finally, we often drink to excess when we eat to excess, and alcohol can inhibit sexual response. Studies have confirmed, for example, that alcohol decreases testosterone, which is the backbone of the male sex drive.
The good news is that you can begin to address your emotional eating and get your libido back on track. If you struggle with emotional overeating, here are a few strategies you can employ to restore your sex drive and, at the same time, put a dent in your emotional eating:
Strategy #1: Begin to address the underlying emotional issues that keep you turning toward food and away from intimacy. If you want to eat when you’re not hungry, choose unhealthy comfort foods when you are hungry, or eat beyond full, STOP, and ask yourself “What am I feeling in this moment?” and “What am I truly longing for or needing?” See if you can access an inner nurturing voice, capable of soothing and comforting you and reassuring you that your true non-food needs can be met.
Strategy #2: Boost Oxytocin by touching and being touched. Researchers have identified this hormone , which emanates from the pituitary gland, as a feel-good chemical. Oxytocin encourages bonding and social connection. Eating stimulates the release of this chemical of calm, as does drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and this explains in part why these behaviors are self-soothing. Oxytocin is also released into the bloodstream in response to soothing and connecting behaviors such as hugs, back rubs and lovemaking. Take every opportunity to appropriately touch others: give someone a hug, neck rub, or back rub, pat someone on the back, or touch someone’s hand lightly. Hug and hold your furry friends. The mood boost can result in positive feelings and more adaptive behavior.
Strategy #3: Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. These foods are high in phytonutrients, many of which are known to enhance sexual performance and health and turn off wayward cravings. Instead of thinking of eliminating favorite comfort foods from your eating plan, see if you can add foods high in phytonutrients that help to crowd out the unhealthy foods. Start with the nutrient-dense leafy greens, like kale, romaine and spinach and anti-oxidant rich fruits like blueberries and raspberries.
Strategy #4: Reduce your alcohol intake. Cutting back your nightly glass or two of wine will definitely have an effect on your health, weight and sex drive.
The truth is that while you yearn for pleasure and pain relief, what you are really longing for can’t be found in the refrigerator. In the moment, there is that initial rush of pleasure and sensation. But it’s fleeting and you never feel good in the morning after that “peak experience” with a carton of ice cream.
Eating and sexuality are complex, intertwined issues. As you begin to explore your deeper yearnings, go slow, get support if you need it and keep in mind that as you begin to address the sensitive issues that are sure to surface, you’re on the road to the bliss you’ve been hungry for.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.
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