Back in November, I wrote a bit about Type II and Type III (Alzheimer’s Disease) Diabetes, how these are largely preventable diseases and how some lifestyle changes can make a big difference in outcomes. This is really old news, as just about everyone dealing with high blood sugar knows about losing weight, exercising, avoiding high glycemic foods, taking the right supplements, et cetera.
If this were easy, we’d only have to say it once and everybody would get it. The trouble is that our brains are not homogenous entities; they’re more like a conglomeration. We have all seen cartoons depicting an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other – it isn’t quite that easy, but it’s a good illustration of what we’re up against.
This is a struggle so enduring that even the Greek philosophers pondered this dilemma. Aristotle even coined a word for the phenomenon of being your own worst enemy: akrasia. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others actually spent quite a bit of time trying to understand why people act against their own best interests. Thanks to science, we have even better insight into that struggle today.
George Ainslie, a psychiatrist, found that timing is important to decision making. If you offer a person $50 today or $100 in two years’ time, a majority opt for the immediate $50 payout. Change the timing to $50 after six years or $100 after eight years? Now most choose to wait for the $100. This can teach us something about how our brains perceive future rewards.
I bother to bring this up because I think (and hope) that knowing the game and its rules can help us to play better, in regard to making good health decisions.
As I mentioned above, our brains are not homogenous. There are, roughly speaking, two major decision making areas in the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The former deals with logic, reason and long-term planning. The latter doesn’t understand the future very well and is focused on the here and now. When we talk about instant gratification, we’re talking about the limbic system.
One way to visualize this is to think of the brain as an apartment complex with two floors. The first floor is inhabited by young tenants with lots of energy and passion, focused on the living in the moment. Upstairs, we have an older couple who budget carefully and keep their apartment nice and orderly.
What does this have to do with diabetes? Consider a box of donuts. The limbic brain is very interested in eating all the donuts and figures the future, if it even exists, will take care of itself. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex knows that choosing better food has greater long-term benefits and isn’t so concerned with the immediate reward.
How do we solve, or at least dial back, this dilemma? Different experts have different approaches. You will have to find what works for your particular situation. In general, the more good reasons a person has to change their behavior, whether it’s quitting smoking or changing their diet to manage diabetes, the greater the chance of success. This is where education is key. The more you can learn about your body’s needs and how they impact you and those around you, the easier it becomes to push those limbic urges down a couple of levels, so they aren’t always in your face.
Spend some time learning about your particular urges. Find healthy approaches and alternatives to them. Get support from people on a similar path. You will do well not to just give in to your urges. Remember, you are not the first person to encounter this dilemma – we’ve been debating it for thousands of years – and you’ll have more successes as you keep learning and trying. As a wise man once told me, “coasting is always downhill.” It doesn’t take any effort to let the limbic brain run your life, but it does make life harder down the road.
I wish I had a magic supplement that I could sell that would completely calm down the limbic response, but there are some that our customers report to be effective at calming the anxiety that can lead to bad decisions, like Metagenics Serenagen, NeuroScience Kavinace, NeurosScience Serene, and others.